Sandy Ogg, a senior operating partner at Blackstone, is one the best students of business leadership I know. I had breakfast with him in New York City recently, and I spoke with him about what makes a good leader.
Before he joined Blackstone, Sandy was chief human resources officer for two large companies, Motorola and Unilever. One of his main charges was to make sure the best people were in the biggest jobs. “Great leaders can exist in average companies and get vastly superior results than the company as a whole,” he said. “In fact, leaders can emerge from any company and get results for their little patch, even if the overall company is underperforming. But the opposite is true as well—average leaders in great companies can drag down results.” As it turns out, he said, great leaders have a lot in common.. According to Sandy:
- Great leaders aren’t victims. “They don’t blame the market, their bosses, their peers, their subordinates or anyone else. They take responsibility for the situation they inherited and, as the Boy Scouts say, work to leave the campsite better than how they found it.”
- Great leaders make their teams great. “They make sure their teams have a clear mission and think like owners of their little patch of the business. At the same time, they take it on themselves to ensure the team benefits from being part of the larger company. This is quite a balancing act,,” Sandy explained. “You want your own team to feel independent and in control of their destiny. But you also want the team to get the best from the mother ship. I’ve seen some leaders try to cut off the mother ship; this never works.”
- Great leaders move fast. “You want to demonstrate to the team that they can be successful, so momentum is critical. You need to think big, act small and move fast. I’ve seen many failed leaders think they need to think big and act big, but that almost always translates into ‘move slow.’ Then you develop no evidence that the team can succeed, and they lose heart. When execution is done at top speed, you get transformation,” he concluded.
I was really struck by all these points, and they fit with many of my own observations, especially the idea of great leaders operating within underperforming companies.
Using our language, these leaders create their own Founder’s Mentality within the team they lead. They work hard to follow the right path on our Founder’s Mentality matrix: They try to deliver the benefits of scale and scope to their team, while taking personal responsibility for protecting their teams from the negatives of complexity and bureaucracy.
About two years ago, I visited the head of Chinese operations for a very large multinational, and this is how he described his role: “We have just founded a new organization in China and we need to make it a leader. I want my team to believe they are in complete control of their destiny. But we can’t succeed in China without all the benefits of being a global company. Nor will we succeed in China if we let the global company slow us down or zap our energy.”
This dual task of the leader—to create a sense of Founder’s Mentality while also capturing benefits of scale and scope—has prompted us to think about the Founder’s Mentality matrix, or two-by-two, not just as a framework for how companies manage the benefits of Founder’s Mentality and scale and scope, but also how individual leaders manage the balance. Here’s a starting list of questions we think every leader should reflect on:
1. What am I doing to move my team east, to build and sustain a sense of Founder’s Mentality?
- Do we have a clear mission for our team? Do we know how that mission fits with the firm’s mission, within the firm’s repeatable model?
- Do we think like owners? Have we tried to eliminate the negative effects of bureaucracy on our little patch? Do we have a bias to action?
- Do we have an obsession with the front line? Do we know who the “king” of the organization is, and are we doing all we can to support the king?
2. What am I doing to bring the benefits of scale and scope to my team?
- How am I working to make my team’s activities more scalable? Have I helped the team to define the one or two repeatable models that will drive their success?
- How am I working to deliver the benefits of scale to the team? Am I using my own network to support my team members?
- How am I working to reduce the costs of scale for my team? Am I actively intervening to help speed things up and resolve key conflicts?
My guess is that most leaders are good at one of these two dimensions, but great leaders are good at both. With their own people, they create a new company ready to take on the world. But they also make sure their people benefit from being part of a global ecosystem. The two-by-two seems to work well as a framework for evaluating leadership qualities, and we’re eager to explore further. Watch this space.