Leading What We Don't Understand

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I have hesitated to jump into the Obamacare website discussion, however it provides such a great leadership lesson that I feel I have to. The lesson is this, even when I don’t understand, when I am the leader, I must lead.

Sounds obvious and yet, so often when it comes to technology and other unfamiliar areas, CEOs choose not to lead. In fact, otherwise effective leaders when they find themselves in situations where they lack familiarity, hire experts and then fully abdicate responsibility for leading these experts.

My sense from reading the press, is this is exactly what happened with the Obamacare website. If you read┬áKathleen Sebelius’ (Head of Health and Human Services) background, she has held many leadership roles, including Governor of Kansas, and at one time was considered a potential presidential candidate. Yet, at least from what I read, despite her strong leadership background, she hired experts to build the website, left them to figure it out and then hoped for the best outcome.

As Ms. Sebelius discovered in the most public way possible, even experts need to be led.

So, how do we lead when we lack familiarity? I was discussing this question recently with one of my Vistage CEO clients who had hired an expert to install a new ERP/CRM system, here is what we came up with:

  • Accept that it is my job, as the leader, to monitor and evaluate when I am responsible
  • Ask for a project plan with specific measurable milestones and agree on a regular meeting schedule to monitor these milestones
  • Ask questions, and when I hear an answer I don’t understand, assume more information is required, and ask more questions (rather than assuming I don’t understand because I am unfamiliar)
  • Ask the people on the line what they are concerned about
  • Get enough information to know when naysayers are change-resistant or if course changes must be made

What else would you add to this list?

Elisa K. Spain