A plea to all HQs out there

Plea to HQ

It’s one of the most frustrating, disheartening and outright maddening conversations to have with a company leader. The discussion where the leader alludes to the fact that he or she is thinking about or has made the decision to leave their respective organisation.  What’s the reason for potentially leaving the organisation?  Well, despite the executive leader’s numerous, tenacious efforts over a lengthy period, they just can’t get regional management to understand why financial investment in leadership capability and workplace culture is so critical to future organisational success.   Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the organisation is suffering from leadership and culture issues, regional management still won’t budge when presented with solid business cases for leadership and workplace culture investment by the company leader.

Here’s a story…

I recently had one of those maddening conversations with a client that sits in the top leadership position for a business that is part of a group of companies owned by an organisation headquartered in Europe.   This client (let’s call him JT) has been with the global organisation for about three years now in the role of General Manager. When he started with the company, JT inherited a broken, dysfunctional, business-wide, state of affairs. This organisational-wide situation included a lack of clear strategy, old product lines with outdated technology that were no longer meeting market expectations, a disengaged and demotivated work force and a confused, siloed leadership team.   To date, JT is doing everything right to turn the ship around.  He has redesigned his leadership team to bring in professional marketing to gain a better understanding of market and customer insight and challenges and in addition, he has added a stronger level of financial acumen.  He has invested significant time and effort to culturally develop his senior team to where they need to be to design a future strategy, as well as develop sound business plans to lead and successfully execute on the strategy.  He is partnering with external organisations to support business needs related to building a strong platform of leadership capability and workplace culture excellence from which, the company can launch new initiatives that are in line with the new marketing strategy. Leadership capability, in-depth customer insight, cross functional collaboration, continuous improvement, robust process management and manufacturing excellence are all becoming part of the new DNA language, toolkit and competence for this company and this is all due to the leadership of JT and his new exec team. 

JT has previously worked with a global organisation that has a remarkable and enviable reputation for clever innovation, which is the result of significant investment by the global HQ in both leadership capability and workplace excellence.  This organisation has renown, fit for purpose regional management and leadership, and operates with a business excellence framework in place. Hence, JT understands at a comprehensive level, the ROI for investment in leadership and excellence type initiatives.  His past working experience has fundamentally supported JT’s skillset and understanding of what needs to happen to reinvent and change the direction of a broken, dysfunctional company.  In addition, when first meeting with JT, it quickly becomes apparent that he is smart with a very high level of abstract reasoning I suspect, he is business savvy, clearly understands people and their personality preferences in the workplace, he is both achievement driven and a pace setter. What is also obvious, is that JT has a naturally high level of self-esteem and above average emotional intelligence. He has strong values, acts with integrity and has overwhelming potential to become a stunning, future CEO that would add greatly to our NZ business world and economy. 

As I mentioned before, to date JT is doing everything right to ensure the journey of reinvention and getting his new company back on the map.   But - and it is a biblical but, at every step of the way he has had to fight, argue and attempt to educate almost to an outlandish level, his Regional Manager on why he needs to invest in leadership capability and workplace excellence initiatives.  He has had to fight for sign-off to address and develop the competence of his leadership team.  He has had to fight to deal with and potentially remove hostage taking personalities that have long tenure and therefore, familiar relationships with regional management.  Hostage takers that are continually creating dysfunctional havoc in the workplace through their inability to cope with the required change from new strategy.  JT has had to fight for investment budget into culture excellence initiatives such as, leadership capability workshops, continuous improvement programmes, team communication and problem-solving development and strategy execution sessions.  Just to be clear on this point, it’s not because there isn’t available budget for this type of development activity, it’s because there is little or no belief by regional management in this type of investment. 

Reality Check…

And so, here we are today. This clever, inspiring, engaging and commercially astute leader, who is more than capable of turning the organisational ship away from the titanic sized iceberg and towards a far brighter future, is finally calling it quits.  I want to be clear here, this has not been an easy decision for this particular leader, as he is truly optimistic by nature with an extremely high level of resilience and tenacity.  However, JT has reached a point of no return in that he has had enough of the incredulous conversations that he has on a regular basis with his Regional Manager.  He’s had enough of the fighting diatribe attempts to get his manager to understand why investment in new marketing strategy is important for the future of this company.  He’s had enough of the persistent ‘no’ answers to his requests for budget sign-off for leadership and culture development. He’s had enough of the stress it creates on the home front through his understandable inability to let go of the overwhelming frustrations caused by the archaic thinking of his manager in a world that demands innovation and new ways of thinking if an organisation is to survive and thrive.  He has had enough of the accumulating, detrimental impact that his Regional Manager is having on his own confidence and level of self-esteem.  JT has simply had enough and so he will go.   Now in many ways, clearly this is a good thing as if JT stays with this organisation, the impact on his level of trust and confidence in his own ability will only worsen and he intuitionally knows this.  In addition, JT will now have the opportunity to find an organisation that is much more suited to his level of skill, knowledge, experience and potential and more crucially, his beliefs around the importance of leadership capability and workplace culture excellence.  I would suggest he will employ significant due diligence when it comes to sussing out his next new manager and what beliefs this person holds when it comes to the key factors that support organisational success. 

What is surely sad and tragic about this, is the impact JT’s leaving will have on remaining leaders and employees that were finally starting to see the forest for the trees and becoming clear and hence, excited and inspired by the future that JT was starting to paint and bring to reality.  What is even more sad and tragic though and finally brings me to the main point of this blog is that the European Group company that owns the business JT works for has a newly defined core purpose and strategic direction.  A purpose and clear direction that JT fundamentally buys into as does the rest of his exec team.   In fact, JT and his team was so very particular to ensure that all of the team’s strategy work was specifically aligned to European Group HQ’s strategy.  Not because JT’s regional manager insisted on this, but rather the team via JT’s leadership and guidance understood the massive power of this strategic alignment with HQ.   In addition, in the last couple of years, the European Group HQ has commenced on a globe-wide, internal communication project relating to their beliefs on workplace culture excellence and the importance of skilled leadership.  What HQ are communicating on strategic leadership, and workplace culture including values, is absolutely in line with JT’s belief system.  It is also clearly in line what he has been attempting to achieve on this front since starting with the company.  Crazy stuff – so how does this happen, that JT has all the goods that the European Group HQ would love, he clearly believes what they believe and is desperate to bring to life core purpose and strategy that would support HQ’s endeavours and yet here he is, about to leave their global organisation. 

Plea to HQ…

So here is my impassioned plea to all HQs – explore ways to get better, faster, at your having your HQ finger on the pulse of regional leadership.  Invest higher levels of activity in understanding what is happening out there on the regional leadership front and is it in line with what you are attempting to achieve from a global HQ strategy, leadership and culture perspective.  I know this is much more easily said than achieved, but unfortunately the situation with JT is all too familiar and by the time a global HQ realises this, the significant damage is already done and dusted.  I know this through my own experience as a global Human Resources Director with my role also sitting as part of a team of global HR Directors, reporting cross functionally into the Group HQ company.   At one time or another, many of us, including myself, in our roles as HR Directors needed to have a tough conversation with HQ regarding the inadequate performance of a global leader that HQ had recruited.  It’s a hell of a thing, particularly when you are relatively new to the company, picking up the phone speaking to the global VP of HR, and then finding yourself face to face with the President of the Group company when he arrives in your country to work out what is going on.  You have to muster all of your courage and words to convince the Group President that in this specific situation he got it seriously wrong, that his Regional Manager recruitment choice is in fact a true Machiavellian monster.  That the Group President’s recruitment choice is a systematic and clever workplace bully, that he knows how to charismatically influence and manipulate HQ relationships, that if he steps foot on some of our local customer sites again, these customers are taking their business elsewhere because they are sick and tired of his narcistic nonsense.   Yip, it’s a hell of a thing.  Now, fortunately in this situation, the Group President listened and while it took some time, an inordinate amount of pain and definite collateral damage, what came of out it was a new leadership personality that fundamentally changed the course of the organisation for the better.   However, this was a situation, that even though it was well understood at the regional and local level, had gone on way too long and many good people, both leaders and employees had already left the organisation by the time an exit was orchestrated.  Had HQ invested more focus on the quality and impact of regional leadership, this is potentially a situation that could have been dealt with much earlier and had far less of a detrimental impact on the region.  

With regards to the JT situation, what is truly interesting to note is that many of his cohorts in other GM roles have already left for greener pastures, primarily because of the incompetence of regional management and the cohorts’ resulting frustration and inability to affect change.  There are often clear signs that things are not going well at a regional level, HQ just needs to have an open, listening mindset and skill itself to know what to look for – point in case, clearly a bunch of local GMs suddenly leaving for greener pastures is a red flag. 

To be fair, it is obviously difficult for any HQ to tread that fine line of interference with regional management, a line which, in some ways is akin to the line between governance and management where blurred lines can be extremely disempowering to management.  There are also obviously situations where HQ has crossed the line and severely hindered regional leadership and management and hence, had the opposite effect causing resignations of great leaders at this level. The point being made here though, is the impact of an actual leadership approach by a regional manager will always outweigh and either support or destroy the strategic and cultural aspirations of HQ.  Therefore, it is crucial that HQ find different ways to truly understand what is happening out in the global regions on the strategic leadership and cultural front.  It is also clearly important that HQ employ significant rigour in the recruitment process of regional management positions and that part of their rigour is assessing the leadership and culture beliefs and values of the regional candidates to ensure they are in line with HQ aspirations. It is not good enough to just ask what previous business successes are under the regional candidate’s belt, there is a definite need to explore the way these business successes were achieved by the candidate. What is also necessary, is regular, robust measurement of regional leadership and management performance other than just financial, BUR, type measurement.  It’s just not rocket science, the higher the position of the leader in the organisation, the more impact he or she is going to have on organisational performance and at the regional level, if this impact is dysfunctional, it’s deafening.

So, in closing, while I am a little sad and certainly deflated that this inspiring, very cool business leader is leaving his current organisation, as we have truly enjoyed working with JT and his team, I am also excited to see where he ends up.  I am looking forward to seeing the true potential that JT can conceivably release in his new organisation.  An organisation that will hopefully be a much better cultural fit for him and also an organisation that employs a smarter, more relevant leadership approach at the regional level and hence, able to better support JT and his future, new cohorts. 

I sincerely wish you the best of luck JT!


Mary Buckley