In my practice, we have gotten to work with some pretty amazing leaders in some rather large companies — our smallest client has about 8,000 employees around the world, and our largest about 280,000. These massive entities are amazing teaching grounds for how to lead in complex systems. They teach valuable lessons for leaders of any size organization.
I find that most successful leaders at the helm of these companies are systems-thinkers. That is, they have the emotional intelligence, the mental acuity, and the imagination to see not just the parts of their organizations — but the complex web of connections that hold together, nurture, and bind these piece parts together. To strike a metaphor: They understand the roots, trunk, branches, and leaves of their organization — and what each element needs to thrive, and also how each element is related to others.
While there are literallly hundreds of thousands of moving parts to these large-scale organizations, I find that leaders, over time, develop a kind of mental model they use in visualizing those elements — they are constantly checking for the health of each element in that model. In my book Unstuck, we use one such model that we learned from a CEO we work with. When you start seeing that a healthy company comes from a system that has in balance purpose, strategy, structure & process, metrics & rewards, people & interactions, culture…you start to be much more comprehensive in your actions.
In your work today, as you make decisions, see if you can try to think through your actions will affect the greater system of your team. If you’re making a decision about a new strategy, how might it affect the people and interactions on your team? If you are changing how you evaluate people, how will that affect your culture? If you are taking changing the structure (who reports to whom) or processes (how you actually get the work done), how might that align with (or be in conflict with) your purpose as an organization?
In thinking through all elements of your system, especially in the every day acts of leadership (the ones that seem more mundane than bold), you’ll constantly be building a team that’s more capable. Try it, let me know what your results are.