Dave Odom: Clearing obstacles

Roadblock

Fotolia/Steve Lovegrove

A leader’s work is not only to set direction and motivate colleagues -- it’s also to help clear away the obstacles that prevent change.

What gets in the way of progress?

Occasionally, a lack of vision is to blame. Sometimes, a leader is unwilling to listen to peers, employees or constituents.

But more often, a leader sets a direction and motivates colleagues but then fails to help them clear away the obstacles that emerge -- obstacles such as the requisite approval of the finance committee, cooperation from the human resources department, or agreements with another church or a government agency.

It is easy to see such a situation in the government. Stephen Hess has written a book about his days working with liberal Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Nixon White House. As I wrote earlier, this is a fascinating study in working with a boss with whom you have substantial disagreement.

One of Moynihan’s strengths was that he had worked in two previous presidential administrations and had identified some of the ways the domestic service agencies were organized to prevent change.

The biggest such obstacle was that each federal agency had mapped the United States into its own unique configuration of districts. As a result, the data gathered by one program could not be easily compared with data from other agencies. Staffs were headquartered in different cities and did not know each other. Thus, food programs operated completely independently from jobs programs. Housing priorities were set and evaluated with no reference to employment opportunities or public transportation grants.

When Moynihan arrived in the Nixon White House as a senior aide, he immediately set to work on eliminating this obstacle. He warned Nixon that a remapping project was unglamorous but nonetheless critical to the success of any other urban policy Nixon might propose.

Moynihan’s first attempt at redistricting failed because of opposition from a senator in Washington state. Moynihan did not give up. He used the prestige of the White House to work with the senator’s aides and the agencies to understand the concerns and develop a compromise.

Some years ago, I participated in an intensive weeklong leadership training that challenged me to rethink every aspect of my department and the ways I led it.

As we articulated changes we wanted to pursue, the trainers asked, “Who will be most impacted by the change you are contemplating? How will you bring that person on board with your thinking?”

Later, the trainers invited us to draw pictures of the systems in which we worked and to identify the points of resistance. Those questions -- about the people and the system -- were critical to my being able to effect change over the next year.

Once a leader understands the importance of clearing obstacles, what is the best way to identify them? Start by looking for the departments, committees or people who repeatedly say no. Ask yourself, “Why does this group always say no?” And then ask, “How does the organization benefit from this obstacle?”

In my experience, the senior management of larger organizations typically depends on the finance, human resources or communications department to keep the organization in line. In congregations, this role can be carried out by the treasurer, the personnel or finance committee, or the church secretary. Become a student of these folks.

Why do they ask the questions that they do? What instructions have they received, and what are the limits of their authority? How can I address their concerns in a way that adds value to the solution? With some reflection and the building of relationships, those who appear to be obstacles can become collaborators.

It is possible to go around these sorts of institutional obstacles, but that works only a few times. If a leader intends to work in a system for years, it is better to learn from the resistance and develop strategies for addressing the personal and organizational concerns that can appear to be obstacles yet prove to be resources.

Removing obstacles is not glamorous, but effective leaders never get beyond the need to do this important work.

My boss once took me to visit a brilliant strategy consultant. My boss had seen this person at work in a local nonprofit and thought that I could learn some things from him. In preparation for the meeting, the consultant asked me to send 50 pages of background material. As the meeting started, it was clear that he had read it all. His questions cut right to the heart of the challenges my department was facing. As my boss pressed into the conversation, he asked the consultant what I should be doing differently.

Once some actions were identified, the consultant made a very interesting turn. He asked my boss what he would be doing to address these concerns. He made the point that clearing the obstacles was not just my job but my boss’s job as well.