Sunday, January 07, 2007

Baird's Perilous Learning Curve

Canada’s new Federal Environment Minister reminds me of a bright-eyed, brand new manager who is about to get some hard lessons. Despite being Harper’s trusted lieutenant, he’ll need more than the Prime Minister’s support to succeed in the environment portfolio. This is going to require authentic, adaptive leadership. Aside from John Baird’s potential as a leader on the environment, he’s starting from minus zero.

Many people already “smell a rat”. The Federal Conservatives about face on the environment file appears to be one of political expediency. They have finally woken up to which way the wind is blowing on the environment. Accordingly, they are adjusting their tone and tune. A new face (Baird) is one of the first chess moves. Can he do it?

I don’t know enough about Baird’s track record to use history as a predictor of the future. Fleetingly, I’ve seen him in a smattering of question periods while he was an MPP and now an MP. Certainly he came across as keen, enthusiastic and committed to getting things done. Not surprisingly, he’s been firm on the Conservative’s agenda on many matters. This portfolio may cause him to question his values and beliefs. Is he up to the task?

Let’s look at what he really has to do to succeed, according to Linda Hill’s research on becoming a new boss (January 2007, Harvard Business Review, ).

Demonstrate character: the intention to do the right thing
This is the crucial line in the sand for any leader-manager. It is the foundation for earning people’s respect and trust. It means negotiating an action plan in an environment full of interdependent relationships. A mind set of “I know best” and “we must be efficient” won’t fly. This complex subject is driven by non-partisan values, the prevailing scientific evidence, the long view and no guarantee of an immediate return on investment.

Baird will have to establish credibility with a web of stakeholders, many of whom will be wary of his intentions. It will not be enough to work with his closest advisors who likely do not have enough diversity in knowledge as a team. Baird must reach out to those with whom he does not agree. He will have to convince them that he is more than a marketing front man.

Demonstrate competence: knowing how to do the right thing
Ah, this will be quite challenging. Baird’s boss has given the impression that he is decidedly unconvinced the environment is in need of his firm decision making to avert disaster for future generations. Harper’s messages often come across as “we can have our cake and eat it too”.

We all know that any body of knowledge is always a work in progress. Thus, questioning the findings, at least in scientific circles, is a de facto standard for debate and discussion. However, there comes a time when the “negotiated truths” converge. As it stands, the voices are getting louder and more anxious. In 2001, 100 Nobel Prize winners from around the globe, including our own John Polanyi, raised the alarm. They continue to do so today. The urgency of the situation now demands collective political leadership. It’s time to stop quibbling.

How is Baird going to convince voters who are alarmed about the environment (as many and recent polls suggest) that he knows what he is talking about? His immediate work group has not demonstrated its grasp of the reality. If leaders show they are not convinced by a consensus that has solid evidence behind it and that they are sincere in managing risk for future generations, why would anyone believe they are competent?

Demonstrate influence: the ability to deliver and execute the right thing
My guess is that Baird will deliver. Will the product be the right one, though? Is he going to suffer a “Rona” fate ultimately?

The quality of the product will depend on the quality of the decision making process Baird uses. If he’s already made up his mind and he’s intending on marketing what he wants to stakeholders, he’s setting himself up for failure. This complex file requires creative and open dialogue, not just from the top but from across parties, jurisdictions and knowledge domains and from practitioners.

With a product in hand comprised of “common ground” among competing interests, the leadership litmus test for Baird is next---setting the policy framework to make sensible and effective action possible among the various players.

Let’s hope Baird learns well on the job such that he will not be a “promotion mistake”. Much will depend on his ability to manage “up” as well as “down”. As time is of the essence, his success will benefit all of us.

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