February 2018

Compass management – a leadership methodology

  • By Danny Simms, Executive General Manager, Institute of Management

To lead, inspire and motivate others effectively, it is important to understand that each person you interact with is an individual with their own story to tell

Compass management is a leadership methodology used to cover the complexities of building and managing stratified relationships within a work environment.

This methodology is the result of reflection, observations and research undertaken during my own leadership journey, and will hopefully provide some guidance for someone at the start of, or part-way through their own development as a leader.

Leadership in the resources sector

Let’s consider the resources sector, and the dimensions that may compound the challenges of management and leadership: fly in, fly out (FIFO) shift rotation, long hours away from families and friends, and the potential for high-risk work in high-risk environments. Add into the mix the global nature of the industry, where project teams may be interacting cross-culturally, and you have significant opportunities for misunderstandings.

These scenarios can place heavy leadership and management burdens on leaders (especially new leaders) in the resources sector.

Compass management

Enter compass management – a methodology designed to develop practical leadership and management capability to work effectively with:

  • a person’s manager/s (north)
  • their peers (east/west)
  • direct reports/junior staff (south)
  • peers of my manager/s (NE/NW).
  • peers of my direct reports/junior staff (SE/SW).

Although the methodology is particularly useful for leaders and managers, compass management is a workable strategy for all professionals, as it allows the user to identify the specific roles and responsibilities of persons from all points of the corporate compass and select the most appropriate behaviours to maximise working relationships and performance. In this way, compass management can be used as both a leadership methodology and a more general professional development methodology.

My background

Before I get into the details of applying compass management to your career, I want to share a bit about my background and how it has shaped my view of leadership and professional relationships. My career path is an eclectic collection of professional phases, including roles as a police officer, paramedic, educator, consultant and senior manager.

These occupations – which all took place in Australia – provided me with a broad understanding of leadership behaviours and how to deal positively with people. Following my experience in these roles, I thought I knew something about leadership; I felt I was an accomplished business professional, able to deal effectively with anything staff or organisations could throw at me.

The next stage in my professional journey involved an expatriate position as an international consultant in the Arabian Gulf.

Up until this time, I had dealt exclusively with native English language speakers in Australia in a western business context.

Now, I was living and working in Kuwait, where I faced the daunting challenge of assimilating into a society very foreign to my own. The new language, cultural and business norms added a whole new dimension to my understanding of the leadership puzzle.

My ‘ah-ha’ phase

This may sound obvious, but 35+ years of multi-career, multi-cultural research and experiences indicated to me that, regardless of my default or preferred leadership style, for me to be effective in inspiring and motivating others to achieve (anything), I really had to understand who I was dealing with and identify the best way of working with them.

Leadership and management development programs often segregate disciplines into discrete areas – examples being:

  • managing ‘up’
  • performance managing staff
  • negotiating with peers.

This form of leadership development, although very useful, may coach leaders into seeing these disciplines as being isolated, and not part of a holistic, inter-changeable and complementary leadership and management framework.

Managers may develop a preferred leadership and communication style that they are comfortable with using for all levels of workplace interactions.

But when considering the cultural, skill-set, and hierarchically diverse nature of organisations – especially those with many departments like a large modern mining company – this potentially one-dimensional leadership approach may not provide the leader with the most effective way to lead and inspire others.

How to apply the compass management methodology

Figure 1 provides a visual explanation of Step 1 in the application of the compass management methodology.

Step 1. Identify your compass points of contact

Place yourself in the centre of the cardinal points and write down the person(s) who sit(s) at each point of the compass.

Consider those persons who you have direct and constant communication with, as well as both internal and external contact points.

It is also worth further categorising contact points if your list is larger, ie those you deal with on a daily basis, several times a week, weekly, etc.

Step 2. Build a profile

Once you have identified your compass points of contact, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the roles and responsibilities of my compass focal points?
  • What is my role in relation to my compass focal points?
  • How do I communicate with my compass focal points?
  • How would I describe the general traits and behaviours of my compass focal points?
  • What kind of relationship do I want to have with my compass focal points?

Step 3. Develop a relationship plan

Based on the answers to the questions in Step 2, develop a relationship plan that addresses the individuality of each compass focal point and allows you to work best with them. What follows is a guide to assist you in developing your relationship plan.

What are the roles and responsibilities of my compass focal points?

This particular question is vital in establishing better working relationships with those around you. Think of some of the job titles within your sector and the assumptions that we make on the activities the person undertakes.

This is particularly relevant in the resources sector, where professionals from a range of disciplines converge. Those in leadership roles may have a broader, less technical background than their direct reports.

To help you to better understand their roles and responsibilities, please take the time to review their position descriptions (where possible) – this is often a good starting point.

Once you have a broad outline of their role, I suggest you take the time to sit down and have a discussion with them. This may feel a bit awkward for both of you, but if pre-framed with statements like below, your approach is more likely to make sense to them and they are more likely to open-up.

‘For me to (support/work with/communicate/prepare better reports, etc), can you please explain your role?’

People are generally keen to talk about themselves, and if you show genuine interest in what they do, and who they are, it goes a long way in cultivating strong relationships.

During your discussions with your focal points, please consider the next question regarding your role in relation to them. Please take the time to flip the conversation and seek their ideas on what you do and take the opportunity to outline how you see it.

What is my role in relation to my compass focal points?

When was the last time you reviewed your own position description? It is worth taking the time to reassess your description, and consider how you fulfil this role and how it impacts on your focal points. At this stage, it is likely that you will note how important it is to have a discussion with your focal points.

How do I communicate with my compass focal points?

A simplistic response to this question is via email, telephone and verbally. But to delve a bit deeper, we all have individual learning style preferences based on four general areas: visual, auditory, read/write and kinaesthetic (ie practical/movement).

What is the relevance of knowing this?

Sending lengthy emails to someone you are managing (ie one of your ‘southerly’ focal points) with a strong auditory/kinaesthetic learning profile may not produce the best results. Instead, they may prefer you to set face-to-face meetings to check in on their progress and discuss any potential issues.

This preference may be different for the other people located around your compass. So by having a better understanding of how your focal points assimilate information, and by incorporating elements of their preferences in your communications (graphs, images, vivid descriptions, etc), you will enhance your capability to communicate, build workplace relationships and enhance productivity.

For further information on the impact of learning styles preferences, take a look at vark-learn.com.

How would I describe the general traits and behaviours of each of my compass focal points?

Traits may be described as a person’s general characteristics – kind, compassionate, patient, loyal.

Behaviours are actions or mannerisms that people choose to undertake or display. Examples are accountability and active listening.

Traits are hard-wired, whereas behaviour is chosen. You have probably heard this at some stage: ‘You need to pick your time to speak with X’.

Having a better understanding of the individual traits and general behaviours of your focal points allows you to be more strategic in how and when you communicate with them.

What general issues do I have with each of my compass focal points?

What I have found is that finding the answers to the previous questions quite often provides you with the solutions to this question. Misunderstandings and miscommunications can be avoided or at least significantly reduced if you have a better understanding of who you are dealing with.

What kind of relationship do I want to have with my compass focal points?

This is one of the toughest aspects of managing and leading – establishing professional relationships and the boundaries. An example is ‘My door is always open’.

Personally, I have never liked this management philosophy, as it suggests that a staff member can wander into my office any time, regardless of the level of their issue/matter, or my own management priorities and deadlines.

My philosophy that I have established with my direct report focal points is that I don’t have an open-door policy; however, should they feel their matter is important I will always make time to speak with them.

This philosophy allows them to take the time to use their judgment and grow personal accountability and decision-making skills.

Here is an example of establishing a relationship with someone that you report to – ie a person located ‘north’ on your compass.

If given a task by my director, I established early on that if I did not understand something, or not agree with an approach to a situation, I would query it.

Both he and I are aware of this and both of us feel comfortable to have a discussion around my queries or concerns without endangering our working relationship.

In summary

Perhaps the biggest point to take away from this is article to understand that leadership is not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ scenario. To lead, inspire and motivate others effectively it is important that you understand that each person you interact with is an individual with their own story to tell.

Because of this, the compass management strategy can help you identify the different people you interact with in your job, and allow you to implement the most effective strategies to communicate with them – whether they are located north, east, south or west on your own personal compass.

For more information on this article and other leadership tips and topics you can contact the author via danny.simms@im.edu.au.

Feature image: 32Pixels/Shutterstock.com.

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