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Leadership Lessons from eePulse CEO Theresa Welbourne

May 25, 2010

In this edition of Expert's Corner, Theresa Welbourne, CEO of eePulse, Inc. and research professor at USC's Center for Effective Organizations, addresses management, leadership and HR lessons learned from the recession.

As the recovery gains momentum, some say the responsibilities of good leadership will shift from allaying employee fears and stakeholder concerns to inspiring confidence in future prospects.

IMT recently spoke with Theresa Welbourne, founder, president and CEO of eePulse Inc., and research professor at the University of Southern California's Center for Effective Organizations. She is the editor-in-chief of the journal Human Resource Management.

In the first of a two-part interview with Welbourne, she discusses management, leadership and HR lessons learned from the recession. (IMT will publish Part 2 of this interview tomorrow.)

IMT: To your knowledge, are managerial roles today still about maintaining cohesion amid a dire business climate, or are they more about laying the foundation for expansion, greater profitability and overall better future prospects?

TW: There's still a lot of variance out there, from what I've seen, because there also isn't much consistency in how firms are recovering. The recession is not melting away for everyone. Also, many managers, and leaders for that matter, do not have much time for managing. They are working managers with very little time for leadership and management.

The firms that are performing well have learned lessons from the recession, and they are trying to figure out how to build on what they have gained. They learned how to break down silos because the enemy out there was bigger and more threatening than the enemy within. These organizations communicated to employees to assure that their people had a high sense of urgency in moving the company forward.

Resisting change was something these firms did not tolerate. They created cultures where change was expected and celebrated. The challenge for the firms who did well during the recession is to keep up the momentum. It won't be easy. Our research shows that the sense of urgency tends to decline when performance improves, and when this happens, people go back to their old ways, which are to protect turf, resist change and fall into the lull of less progress.

IMT: Leadership became especially critical during periods of uncertainty. As the U.S. economy gradually recovers from the downturn, business leadership remains more important than ever before. As founder and lead researcher for the Leadership Pulse initiative, what do you see as the key qualities that strengthen employees' confidence in their leadership?

TW: Employees and managers have been asking for something that may well lead to a revolution in how we teach business. They are no longer enthralled with the long-term strategy and the exercise that sets the business units, teams and individuals to fit along with the strategy. That's because by the time you start your first alignment exercise, the world changes and the effort is pretty useless. Employees see through this exercise, and they are looking for more. They are asking for something they call direction.

In survey after survey on leadership work and with case studies, we find that there is a growing lack of direction. The culprit is not low levels of intelligence, but what I call "stacking work syndrome."

Organizations have laid off employees and reorganized without adding more people, and as business increases, they are all working hard to get more of the same people. People have way too many stacks, so they do little bits of each. However, they are not completing projects, and that makes them feel like they are neglecting their peers and unsuccessful. Employees need wins, and stacking work syndrome — where every stack seems to have equal importance and where more stacks are added day after day — leaves people exhausted and depressed.

Employees are asking for direction; they want to know which stack to work on first, second or third. Today, direction trumps strategy, and direction is provided by ongoing, frequent communication.

IMT: Today's business cycles demand faster product or service turnaround and increasingly up-to-the-minute scheduling. What techniques can companies — particularly SMBs — use to reorganize their human resources systems for better efficiency and performance? Are there any strategies that should be overhauled or done away with entirely?

TW: This is a great question, and it is exactly what HRM needs to do today to drive success.

I have been bringing the extreme and agile programming work to HRM in order to create Fast HRM. We have used these tools to speed up the employee survey process, create a new approach to multi-rater feedback called the 3-minute 360, implement fast learning through a combination of real-time benchmarking, social networking and thought leadership. The extreme/agile programming philosophy is easy to start: you begin by working with the HR group and management to identify one HR practice to improve; then, through storytelling processes and interactive communications, small improvements are identified. These changes are made and reviewed with stakeholders, and new requirements are taken through the cycle.

Other approaches to streamlining HR come from lean manufacturing and total quality management (TQM). Another focus we have been using is to redesign HR to create HR pods, or small groups focused on projects. We also suggest establishing R&D pods or teams within HR so that the processes created are continually improving.

Part 2 of IMT's interview with Welbourne will be published tomorrow.

Theresa Welbourne, Ph.D., is the founder, president and CEO of eePulse Inc., and research professor at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California. She is the editor-in-chief of the journal Human Resource Management and author and lead researcher of the Leadership Pulse. She has more than 30 years' experience as a researcher and consultant in high-growth and high-change organizations.