Holes in the O-zone Layer
by Roger E. Herman

Remember the warning from the popular musical, "The Music Man," "There's trouble in River City?" The trouble is exposed by scheming con man Harold Hill. His latest trick is getting the residents of River City to believe they can use his "Think Method" to become a proficient marching band. What he really has in mind in stealing their money after they place orders with him for uniforms and instruments.

Practically everyone who has enjoyed "The Music Man" can sing, hum, or remember at least parts of the popular song warning that the youth of the community were frittering away their time playing pool. Harold Hill's pleadings called attention of the townsfolk that "Ya Got Trouble."

As the song begins, Harold Hill crows:

"Well, either you're closing your eyes
To a situation you do not wish to acknowledge
Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated
By the presence of a pool table in your community."

Well, I wouldn't classify myself as a scheming con man, but I would like to borrow the familiar theme to the corporate world. To paraphrase,

"Well, either you're closing your eyes
To a situation you do not wish to acknowledge
Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated
By the absence of qualified leadership in your company."

The trouble? Holes in the O-zone layer. And I'm not talking about global warming or environmental issues. We've got serious trouble brewing, and in some companies it's already present.

The O-zone Layer

There's a group of people in most companies that is increasingly referred to as the "O-zone." The reference is to the titles of the people in this group, with the "O" standing for Officer. These are the people at the top level of the organization, the people charged with leading everyone else to high levels of achievement - today and even more in the years ahead. The high level executives who breathe that rarified air at the top of the organizational chart are a special breed with responsibilities that demand considerable expertise, vast experience, incredible vision, and unsurpassed ability to convey inspirational messages to employees, stockholders, and other stakeholders.

Sounds exciting! Life in the o-zone can be pretty heady. Expectations are high - from everyone inside and outside the organization. There is great admiration for the Chief Executive Officer, respect for the Chief Financial Officer, appreciation for the Chief Human Resources Officer, the Chief Marketing Officer, the Chief Technology Officer, and the list goes on.

If all these men and women are well-qualified, carefully chosen, and enabled to work together like a well-oiled machine, the company is in fine condition. Opportunities are identified, pursued, captured, and exploited to the fullest. Problems are anticipated, researched, and mitigated or eliminated. The top talent in the industry salivates at the possibility of working with a company that has an o-zone that really works.

The Reality

The reality of the situation, however, is that too many organizations lack a complete team of high performers in the o-zone. Simply put, there are holes in the o-zone.

Some of the people who hold o-level titles are not equipped to handle the job. In other cases, positions are vacant because of budget constraints or an inability to attract the caliber of executive needed to assume the responsibilities. These holes in the o-zone layer inhibit a company's capacity to function at full throttle. Opportunities are missed, situations are mismanaged, issues are not properly addressed, and employees are forced to function under less than ideal conditions. Without adequate leadership support, highly talented workers become frustrated and are more receptive to calls from recruiters.

Considering this corporate dilemma, it is hard to diagnose whether it is worse to have holes because positions are empty or because they're filled with substandard performers. Neither situation is healthy for a leadership team and should not be tolerated. Depending on the organizational responsibility structure, the problem could rest with the board of directors and/or with the Chief Executive Officer. If the top executive is inadequate, the board must address the shortcomings and take action to replace the CEO or improve capability and performance. Bottom line: performance goes up or the CEO goes out.

Deficiencies in others at the o-zone level are clearly a predicament to be corrected by the CEO. Given the challenges of managing a company during current and future economic times, there should be zero tolerance for the "old boy" network. Acknowledging the findings of Jim Collins in From Good to Great, having the right people in the right seats on the bus is imperative. This mantra includes the senior levels of the organization.

People who work in the o-zone layer are responsible for the strategic thinking, planning, vision, and direction of the company. Without a complete, competent team, there is an increasing risk that the business may move energetically in the wrong direction. In a world that demands greater agility in situational analysis, strategic shift, and inspired engagement of people, a strong o-zone team is a competitive advantage.

Plugging the Holes

Some tough decisions lie ahead. The economy is tight today, requiring a special style of leadership. But, the economy will grow again relatively soon, demanding that those o-zone leaders shift gears rather quickly to respond. These key people must be nimble - in their thinking, collaboration, and action.

While we can place this problem squarely in the lap of the CEO, each executive must assume personal responsibility and accountability for personal preparedness and performance. This is not the time to wait to be called into the CEO's office for a little chat. The wiser alternative is some serious self-evaluation. For some, this process will be more painful than difficult. If you can honestly identify your inadequacies, take deliberate steps to overcome them. If you are genuinely ignorant of your strengths and opportunities, take advantage of the diagnostic instruments that are available today. To use the phrase that has become almost a cliché, "you can run, but you can't hide."

Some deficiencies can be addressed by coaching from the CEO and/or a professional executive coach. We have coached senior executives, including CEOs, and have found that coaching alone can sometimes make a big difference. Special workshops, designed for high-level executives can provide invaluable knowledge and insight - about yourself or about the leader's role. Seminars and courses, sponsored by universities, trade associations, or professional groups can update your knowledge and skills. Investing more time reading books on leadership and books in your field of specialization can reap wonderful benefits. You'll gain both insight and information that will empower you to do the job expected of you.

In some cases, it may be best for you to leave your present position. If your knowledge, skills, and experience are not sufficient for your company's needs, you might be wise to move to another position - in your current organization or another.

We live in unusual times that will challenge each of us in ways we never expected. True leaders will rise to the occasion to plug the holes in their company's o-zone layer. They'll take the initiative before the competition eats their lunch.

Given the conditions that corporations will face over the next 5-10 years, every organization must assure that its senior leadership team is competent, cohesive, and complete. Anything less puts the company at risk in today's turbulent world.

The Next Step

This article has focused on the o-zone layer. Smart employers engage in conscious and deliberate succession planning … and succession preparation. Who in your organization is prepared to step up into the o-zone? What are you doing to prepare them so you won't have holes in the future? You don't have the luxury of waiting. The time is now.

Roger Herman, co-author of How to Become an Employer of Choice, is CEO of The Herman Group, a firm of Certified Management Consultants and professional speakers based in Greensboro, NC. Visit www.hermangroup.com or e-mail roger@hermangroup.com .

Many more articles in The HR Refresher in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2004 by Roger Herman. All rights reserved.

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