Leadership In Absentia

Ensure people are empowered to grow, learn, and care about successful outcomes when pursuing innovative digital transformation

Leadership in Absentia

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

Hire new people. Separate them from the rest of the company. Give them a landfall budget. Tell them to innovate using the newest cool words. Maybe all of the words at the same time. Tell them they do not need to care about the existing people, teams or operations that currently and historically generate revenue for the company. Do not give them a time limit to show results. Don’t create it, but allow a “they are special” mentality in the culture. Tell the folks on the existing (legacy) side of the house to “keep the lights on” while the new folks bring fresh ideas, play with all the new technologies and receive the accolades.

If you want people to leave, let them know they aren’t working on the most important things, aren’t valued as much as the others and there is no budget to explore ideas for improving their situation. Just tell them to keep working. For good measure, yell at them.

This recipe sounds horribly negative and absolutely does not value people.

There will be no culture that builds a company using this recipe because there will be no people. Taking a company and splitting it down the middle using, “old stuff” and “new stuff” mentalities breaks the culture, the loyalty, commitment and positive outlook of the people. And it guarantees time and money will be spent. Not guaranteed is whether the company will be better in the end.

A healthy company is “we.” An unhealthy company is “us/them.” Which one you experience is attributable either to active, purposeful leadership or leadership in absentia.

No one does that. Do they? Sadly it happens in the conversations which also use the words “innovation” and “digital transformation”. The goal is quite logically to move a culture and company into the next chapter of life.

We see quotes from Peter Drucker, Lee Iacocca, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or Jim Collins floating through social media and other published material regularly. They are leaders with a history of influence and success. And what we often hear they said is, “Hire great people and get out of the way.”

What we do not hear in the same conversations is, “getting out of the way” is predicated by giving people the direction, parameters, latitude and resources to do great things and then get out of the way. “Hire great people and get out of the way” makes it sound like people require blank checks, blue skies and absolutely no friction, pressure, expectations, knotholes, constraints, guiding attributes, parameters or leadership.

Getting out of the way still requires active leadership.

Getting out of the way as a leadership tenet still requires two crucial attributes: (1) there must exist a clear objective, and (2) there must exist rules of engagement.

Before you cast off this material as drivel, ask yourself this: If you needed to liquidate personal assets to grow a company, would you want clear objectives and rules of engagement to exist before your personal money left the bank? As you spend your employer’s money, are you similarly disciplined?

The recipe for growing and transforming people and companies isn’t hard. It is time-consuming. It will require active planning, re-planning, leadership and management. It will require communication and over-communication. As many companies attest, there is no shortcut. Organizational change must be all-in, top-down, on-purpose.

It will absolutely require work.

1. Cast the Vision (What)

A vision tells people at a high level where you want to go compared to where you are.

Examples of vision:

  • Build a shareable smart city platform.
  • Move us completely into the cloud and out of brick and mortar.
  • Practice test-driven development for all product development and evolution.
  • Be EBITDA positive.
  • Implement a document management solution for our enterprise.
  • Implement an automated build, bundle and delivery process.

2. Describe the Outcomes (Why)

Outcomes tell people what it will look like when the desired vision is reached.

Examples of outcomes:

“By building a shareable smart city platform, we will enable approved third-party partners and vendors to work with us to serve our clients through real-time bi-directional sharing of information, more systemic feature and function opportunities, greater influence over the direction of the smart city industry, as well as, increasing the value of our data and brand along the way.”

“We are an insurance company. We irrevocably owe it to our clients to manage data privacy, provide real-time interactions and always be available to their needs at all times. We also owe it to them to be wholly focused, wholly available for their needs. We do not want to be in business of owning and managing physical data center assets in the future. By moving into the cloud we enable a larger percentage of our company team members and assets to focus on serving the real-time, interactive insurance needs of our clients than ever before.”

3. Identify Desired Objectives (Attributes of Done)

Objectives are explicit statements that are tangible, have a clear definition of done and are usable/useful solutions in the end.

Example objectives:

  • Enable a complete digital exhaust picture for all documents that enter, exist within, and exit our corporation including, but not limited to: when create, edit, delete, by whom, from where, sent/shared to whom or to what.
  • Enable a complete digital exhaust picture for all software that enters, exists within and exits our corporation including, but not limited to: create, edit, delete, by whom, from where, to whom or what, how and when tested, how and when statically and dynamically inspected, how and when assessed for vulnerabilities, how and when penetration tested, when deployed, what was in the bundle, sent where.

4. Provide Resources

To enable success for any team, they need access to the resources necessary to achieve desired objectives and outcomes. Sending them off with duct tape, hope and zeal will have results. Whether they are the results you desire remains to be seen.

Great People + Clear Objectives + Required Resources = High Probability Outcomes

This is the step people sometimes mistake as the entire recipe for, “Hire great people and get out of the way.” If we give them time, people, money and latitude, magical things will happen.

If you want dependable outcomes, the “hire great people and get out of the way” mantra also requires clear rules of engagement.

5. Set Rules of Engagement

Rules Of Engagement (ROE), also known as constraints, parameters or attributes, help define the context and conditions of done. They are not designed to limit innovation opportunity or success. Rather, ROE help direct all of the great people, time, energy and resources into a direction that is most beneficial for the context.

Examples of bad/no constraints:

  • Hire a building contractor. Whether they build homes or commercial buildings you don’t know. Write them a check. Tell the contractor, “You have one year. Surprise me.”
  • Schedule an appreciation party for your project team. Hire a chef. Tell the chef to prepare enough food for twenty people. Tell the chef your folks like exotic meat and hot, spicy things and to make it memorable.

Examples of good constraints:

  • Our time to market must be six months
  • Our time to revenue must be nine months
  • Use only open-source software
  • Ensure we are NIST-CSF compliant for Day 01 launch

6. Create Teams that Consider the Whole Company

Oversimplified, there are two types of people in companies:

1) Those who only see what is in front of their face (component thinkers); and

2) Those that know what is in front of their face is only a fraction of what can be seen in the larger landscape (systems thinkers).

Hire people who naturally think about the whole business and client experiences, not just the parts they want to think about. Set clear expectations with teams and projects that they must consider end to end implications of decisions and solutions, not just the parts they know about. Create cross-company teams that consider yesterday, today and tomorrow to ensure you bring along your people, your company, your clients and your future.

If you truly value your people, include them in defining tomorrow so that they take ownership of the journey and the result.

7. Stay Actively Involved

When leaders hire people they trust, it is easy to step back, get out of the way and just believe all will be well. If leadership defines the vision, outcomes and objectives for the company, leadership must stay involved in the journey until realization as well – that is leadership.

  • Regularly meet with the teams to let them know the project is important, their contribution and effort is important and that you want to hear what they have to say regarding activities, challenges, roadblocks and progress.
  • Request and expect to see tangible, demonstrable output on a regular basis. Do not take someone’s “word” that progress is happening; nor should you accept status reports, presentations or glossy materials discussing output. See the output or there is no output.
  • Regularly ask people how they are making the business better, how they are making better experiences and solutions for clients and what the time to value, time to market, time to revenue will be as a result of this investment.
  • Eliminate toy boxes. All money must lead to a return on investment in some way that benefits the people, business and/or clients. If there is no evidential relationship between investment and return, the effort is likely a toy project for someone, but not a high-value proposition for the business. Eliminate toy boxes or they will eliminate your money.

8. Know When to Say When

Knowing when to stop investing in an idea is something you must determine before the investment begins. After you’ve been on the journey for a while, it has the propensity to become personal. After all, you’ve labored over this idea, spent time, money, blood, sweat and tears.

Decide before the effort begins and regularly and iteratively ask the same questions:

  • What do we want to see from the team that shows us this is a worthy investment?
  • How much time and money is enough to validate, refactor or trash the idea?
  • How much risk exposure exists now and will exist as a result of the current solution direction? Will this solution increase or decrease our business and technical risk exposure? What is our risk appetite?
  • What are the triggers that make this investment good, at-risk and a candidate for termination?

Active leadership is great deal more than getting out of the way. It means you hire great people. You don’t leave others behind. And you go on the journey with them once you’ve cast the vision, expressed the desired outcomes, provided the ROE and resources to be successful. 

If you truly value your people, include them in defining tomorrow so they take ownership of the journey and the result.

I drink a lot of caffeinated coffee and tea. And I’m on airplanes a lot. Drinking coffee and tea. I’m making a commitment to write more articles in 2020 – and increase the number of speaking engagements at which I drink coffee and tea. It is material we discuss every day at Trility and with our clients. It is material that you may find helpful as well. If you’d like to keep informed, and even interact, please connect or follow me on LinkedIn. Or we can send you an email

We are also always looking for system thinkers to join us – those who can see the larger landscape and do the work as well. If this resembles you, email us

Author: Matthew D Edwards

President and CEO Trility Consulting