You probably haven’t heard of meta-leadership. And I confess I had not until I happened to Google my childhood friend Lenny, now the esteemed Dr. Leonard Marcus, Co-Director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative (NPLI), a joint program of the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. At first I was amused by the fact that the pudgy kid who played a mean clarinet and teased me unmercifully in the sixth grade eventually became a Harvard pundit, but then I read on and saw that his work sheds some light on the challenges of leading outsourcing change.
One of the main tenets of outsourcing change management is that strong executive sponsorship must be in place as a precondition for success. So as we shape a sourcing strategy, we do it under the sponsorship of some leader near- or at the top-of-the-house, who is willing to put his or her imprimatur on the program – almost, dare I say it, as a Royal Warrant or a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. After all, if a CXO is seen as endorsing a change in business model, the working assumption is that other stakeholders will get on the bus.
The generally accepted construct is that it’s up to the top team to provide whatever leadership is necessary. The sourcing team thinks it is then free to focus on implementation, believing that sufficient sponsorship is place to cover their flanks. And they move into the trenches of transition and operations.
Unfortunately, we ask very little of those executives cast in the role of providing sourcing sponsorship. We expect them to: be the chief endorser; the enterprise-wide voice of the initial sourcing announcement; grace our town halls with their presence to show C-suite support; thump their fists in meetings when their leadership peers complain; and play good or bad cop in governance sessions, depending on the tone the client team wants to take with the provider. In sum, we roll them out when we think the problem or event demands the force of their presence. But we really don’t expect them to actively engage, spend much time questioning and probing, or lobbying recalcitrant business line leaders to help overcome the challenges that inevitably occur.
Having “outsourced” the leadership role upstairs, we get on with the act of sourcing. Viewing sourcing as a program to implement, not a major change, we spend our days analyzing, negotiating, focusing on the progress of knowledge transfer, moving past toll gates, and ensuring that cutover goes well.
But we do little to prepare our sponsors for a very important role. Outsourcing generally changes the organization’s world order, shaking up enablers (technology, delivery location, outsourced or captive), rules (policies, procedures, workflow), outcomes (better, faster, cheaper) and culture (spans of control, careers, relationships) for a large number of stakeholders across the organization. And suddenly, these stakeholders either have to work in new or different ways.
What does this have to do with Lenny and meta-leadership? Lenny has been studying leadership for some time. And many of his concepts were tested when the Federal Emergency Management Agency asked him to evaluate the US Government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, where he redefined the role of leadership in any large-scale crisis.
Now while, technically, the implementation of outsourcing should by no means be considered a crisis of the same magnitude as Katrina, extrapolating Lenny’s research … sponsorship, as we define it in outsourcing, is not sufficient for success. According to his definition, leadership refers to the “recognized or expected span of authority that a person has in his or her formal role.” So when the CXO stands up and pronounces that the outsourcing of IT or finance or HR or software development is the right thing to do, he or she speaks as the hopefully incontrovertible voice of authority, based on the strength of his or her position on the org chart.
But span of authority accorded to role is not sufficient. This is where meta-leadership becomes critical. According to Lenny’s definition, meta-leadership involves employing influence over authority. “Meta-leaders…seek to influence and activate change well above and beyond established lines of their decision-making and control. These leaders are driven by a purpose broader than that prescribed by their formal roles, and are therefore motivated and capable of acting in ways that transcend usual organizational confines.”
By extrapolation, the expectations we place on sourcing sponsorship are not enough. Recognized authority alone will not drive the change that outsourcing represents. Rather, the meta-leader moves from mere outsourcing endorser, because of the stature of his role, to outsourcing’s number one change agent – because he has the power to influence.
What are the duties of the sponsor c** sourcing meta-leader?
Sourcing meta-leaders don’t just preside over meetings and are quoted in PowerPoint presentations; they actively develop and articulate outsourcing change challenges. No longer relegated to the role of decrying a corporate “call to arms” [this is what we are doing – and here’s why] the meta-leader first rolls up his sleeves to form an accurate picture of the sourcing context, including the extent of the change, how the change will occur within the organization’s culture, its context, and who will win or lose in the process. Then he articulates it to those involved.
Meta-leaders lead first, by example, within their own span of control. This is the equivalent of, “do as I say and as I do”. The meta-leader goes first, sourcing processes within his or her own span of control, proving that he/she has actual skin in the game.
Meta-leaders are acutely attuned to the challenges faced by their superiors and peers. They are fully aware of the expectations and priorities of the rest of the C-suite and business line leaders, and are able to couch and adapt the sourcing strategy to deliver against these appropriately. They work up and across the corporate ladder, not just downward … placing the sourcing change in the context of other corporate priorities and initiatives, and ensuring that sourcing delivers against them, as appropriate.
Meta-leaders actively drive engagement across the enterprise. Connectivity is a key aspect of meta-leadership. Meta-leaders demand engagement from their peers, in effect recruiting them as a network of change agents who step out of their own silos to embrace the overall objective—change the organization—and work together to accomplish it.
So, the next time you lay out your change program, and the sponsor is slotted for cameo appearances, signatures on email updates, or presentations to their leadership peers… think again. Plan for much more engagement. Carve out a bigger role. Make your sponsor your number one change agent. Demand meta-leadership.