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The 3 best leadership 'hacks'

(MoneyWatch) Time to come clean. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1980s, which was like growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, except with smog. And when air-quality experts tell you to stay inside, your options are limited. Thankfully, I had an Apple II -- and a group of friends that were into hacking. Yes, I did a lot of bad stuff. No, I was never caught. Yes, I'm really, really sorry. (And yes, the statue of limitations has run out. In the interest of full disclosure, I go into details in my personal blog.)

The purpose of this blog isn't to confess my misdeeds, but rather to highlight a new way of approaching leadership challenges: hacking. It's also to highlight three specific leadership "hacks" that can change everything at your company.

First, a brief note. If you're over a certain age, the term "hacking" probably has negative connotations. You may think of stealing credit card information, Anonymous, WikiLeaks, and denial-of-service attacks. I suggest letting that go and replacing it with this definition: Hacking is messing around with a highly complex system until you find a simple way to make it do things it can't do now. That definition, applied to leadership, produces a "leadership hack" -- a specific set of steps that will let you do things that most people can't do.

Leadership hacking focuses on altering a company's "operating system," which is its organizational culture. I'm not referring to producing a new system of management, which Gary Hamel and others are working on in a program called Management Innovation Exchange, or MIX. MIX is great, but it is focused on management.

The real opportunity here is to produce a new breed of leaders who, like Jedi, go beyond what seems possible by applying just the right hack at just the right time.

Leadership Hack #1: Knitting together silos in your company

PROBLEM: Most companies over a certain size develop tribes that don't talk with each other. Inside each tribe, communication is great, but if you graphed the interchanges between people, you'd see something resembling the Korean Peninsula -- a demilitarized zone in which no communication passes, except an occasional missile to irritate the other side.

The hack:

1. Identify two tribes that are strong but have little or no contact between them.

2. Within each tribe, identify one person who is well connected within that group. Use the "click down" hack to get to know each person's core values.

3. Introduce those two people to each other, emphasizing a core value they share, and also a shared problem. Get them working on the plan together. (If you want specifics, see the Micro Strategy hack.)

4. Repeat the process three more times, with three different people in each of the two tribes.

Success indicator: People within each tribe will stop referring to the other as "they" and start talking about "us."

Leadership Hack #2: Overcoming the influence of an "I'm great (and you're not)" manager

PROBLEM: Many managers are hired because they're stars. As they move up the ladder, they continue to rely on their strengths, their abilities, and their knowledge. They know more (or think they do), and come across as self-obsessed. Further, their relationships show a hub-and-spoke pattern in which they prevent relationships from forming around them.

The hack:

1. Create a bubble of people around you, implement the Mountains and Valleys exercise, and form triadic relationships (three-person relationships based on shared core values).

2. Join a strong tribe of people outside the company to support you.

3. Within this group, make it clear that we do things differently than the rest of the organization. Do not throw the organization, or the manager exhibiting "I'm great" behavior, under the bus by disparaging either -- in public or in private.

4. Hyper-communicate with the manager about everything that's going on within the tribe. Continue this process until the manager asks you to dial the information back a bit. Then dial it back a tiny bit, so that the manager still complains about your excessive communication, but less often.

5. Expect to get yelled at if the manager is ever surprised by what he learns your group is doing. Say, truthfully, "but I did tell you." When told that you need to a do better job of prioritizing, agree and apologize. If you get angry, vent to your supporting tribe, not to the tribe you're leading.

Success indicator: Other parts of the organization notice the success of your tribe and ask how you did it. Give the credit to the manager that is, in fact, the problem. The reason for giving credit is that doing so will win you goodwill and time to continue the process of cultural change.

Leadership Hack #3: Create new innovations, and fast.

PROBLEM: Your company isn't producing profitable new products and services, while your competitors are.

The hack:

1. Identify a stakeholder group that is important to your company.

2. Catalog all existing assets (also known as "spare parts").

3. Without any concern about return on investment or profitability, and using the assets you identified, find a way to help the group of stakeholders.

4. Catalog all assets the tribe is producing and see which can become the basis of a new profitable product or service.

(This hack was detailed on this blog a few weeks ago in a post called"Steps to Make Your Company Insanely Profitable." )

Success indicator: One new product or service that generates substantial profits.

The truth is that if you review my past blog posts, most were written in the form of hacks. Here are two of the most popular:

1. Make your meetings hyper-productive and fun

2.Assess and improve your reputation

The steps to producing your own leadership hacks are on my personal blog.

What do you think of leaders as hackers? Offended? Think it's got potential? I hope you'll share a comment below.

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