Leadership Interview

James Kerr has been working with clients for over 25 years. Read on to find out what led to him studying leadership, why he believes teams underperform, why it’s sometimes OK to take a break from e-mails and phone calls, and how naming a conflict helps in resolution.

Thanks for doing this interview! Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got to where you are today – where you’re from, your educational and/or work background?

For over 25 years, I’ve helped  my clients re-imagine the way their businesses are organized and operate. My books, magazine columns and other media provide a way for me to contribute to the evolution and advancement of management and leadership thinking.

What made you interested in leadership?

A passion for business and a sincere interest in human behavior led me to the study of leadership.  Leaders make or break every organization.  Good ones deliver great results.  Poor ones don’t survive. Much of what I’ve learned over these many years of research and practice have become the foundation of the consulting services that I offer to my clients today.

What do you believe is the key to effective communication with your team?

Trust.  The most successful teams are not necessarily the ones staffed by the most talented or possess the highest collective IQ.  Rather, the most successful teams have created (through the establishment of, mostly informal, norms) a safe environment in which to work  – one based on trust.  It’s only through sharing mutual trust that people can openly and honestly communicate.

How do you keep people motivated despite obstacles or setbacks?

There’s all kinds of things that I could tout, including hot topics like transparency, common goals, fairness in measurement and compensation.

While all of these things are important and can play important roles in establishing a winning culture, no combination of them will serve to motivate an individual to perform.  At the end of the day, it’s Theory X and Theory Y.

On an individual basis, people are motivated by one of two things – a pat on the back or a boot in the bottom.  Everyone is motivated by one or the other.  It’s our jobs as leaders to learn which one you prefer and give that to you when you need to be motivated.

Now, how you provide the pat or boot can and should vary.  It’s where some of the “hot topics” outlined above can be of service – they may be what you use to motivate.  But, if you use the wrong kind of approach with a person, you may only further demoralize and alienate the individual.  If I need a pat and you give me a kick, I just might quit!

Which mistake do you believe leaders make most often, and how could they avoid it?

It’s delusional to think that you have all the answers to every challenge that your organization confronts. Leaders that operate under the assumption that they are the smartest person in every room usually fail.  It can be avoided by recognizing that it takes a team to win.  Once that’s understood, a leader should go about the work of building trust within the team and promoting collaboration among all of the players.

What do you believe is a quality that a leader should try to eliminate from their team?

Parochialism.  It’s a topic that I often cover in my writing.  A team should be about “being in it together.”  If team members are more interested in their personal gain than achieving a common goal, it’s likely that that team is under-performing.

Related:  A Leadership Interview With Mark Graybill

Is there a particular well-known leader or company that you find inspiring? If so, why?

Bill Belichick, head coach of the NFL’s New England Patriots, would be someone that I would point to as the epitome of a great leader.

By adhering to a few simple principles, he’s able to consistently churn out winning teams. His teams win, even with seemingly inferior talent and regular personnel turnover.

Are there any specific apps, tools or software that you use for productivity/communication?

Nothing out of the ordinary.  I think that standard tools offered in the MS office suite and most mobile devices are sufficient to do the work that I do.  It’s the processes that you put in place that dictate their use that makes someone more productive than someone else.

One thing that I think makes me very productive is believing that I don’t need to immediately answer every email or instant message that I receive in the course of the day.

Just because a phone rings, doesn’t mean that you have to answer it! In fact, you actually can let it go to voicemail, while you finish the meeting, the memo, the report, your dinner!

How do you resolve conflict within your team?

Give it a name and hug it out!  First, you need to label a conflict as a conflict. Pretending that it’s not a conflict and hoping that it miraculously goes away is not leadership.

So, if you have a conflict that escalates to you, as the leaders, then pull your team together.

Name the conflict, outline its supporting issues and talk it out – WITH ALL STAKEHOLDERS IN THE ROOM AT THE SAME TIME. If you do that you can manage through to conflict resolution and all parties hear the same information at the same time.

There’s no spin! There are no rumors. There is no communication fall-out.

What advice would you give to upcoming leaders?

Three things come to mind:

  1. Provide your team your vision for the future and show them where they fit in.
  2. Operate at the highest level of integrity.  Don’t mislead, falsely promise or exaggerate.
  3. Treat your team the way that you would want to be treated and they’ll give you their best.

Do you have any particular hobbies or interests?

I’m an avid golfer, motorcyclist and NFL football fan – not necessarily in that order!

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James Kerr
James M. Kerr is considered one of today’s foremost thinkers on Organizational Design and Strategic Transformation. For over 25 years, he has helped his clients re-imagine the way work is organized and performed. Kerr’s next book, his 5th, is due out later this year and focuses on leadership and strategy-setting. You can check-out his most recent book here, follow him on Twitter, or contact him directly via [email protected]
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