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Knowledge: The Essence of Meta Data:
Leadership in a Natural Disaster

online columnist R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D.     Column published in DMReview.com
October 20, 2005
 
  By R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D.

The first 30 minutes are the most difficult, that's when the smell, the devastation and the enormity of the task at hand will hit you. The stench is from the mold, mud, spoiled food and rot that emerges when a large volume of water enters the home. The devastation of a 20-foot storm surge resembles bomb blast with boats sitting on dry land, cars on top of cars, trees on top of houses and houses that floated down the street.

Our church sent a group of us to help the people of Biloxi, Mississippi, rebuild their community. While our work was not widely recognized, our presence provided hope and a sense that someone cared to one of Biloxi's poorest neighborhoods. The jobs we performed included helping in the church store where food and clothing was handed out, cutting up fallen trees, power washing and an enjoyable task referred to as mucking. Mucking is the systematical removal of the furniture, appliances, cabinets, walls, flooring and anything else outside of the studs and roof. In one house the water line was seven feet above the floor which was already elevated four feet above the ground. A team of seven can completely clean out and strip a house in two days; including power washing and bleaching. By having volunteers do the work, the home owner saved an estimated $75,000 when you add up all that will eventually go back into the home.

This month I want to bring to this column an awareness of the need in the hardest hit areas as well as lessons of leadership. Nothing we do in meta data can come close to the work done when others are in need but we can relate those observations and apply them to our own world. In "The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership," Maxwell (1998) comments that one of the best opportunities for leadership is in a volunteer setting. When you place people in situations where there are no financial rewards, true distinctions of leadership will emerge. The following components are my observations during this crises and the application to enterprise meta data.

Everyone and Everything Matters

When mucking a home every job is important and no job is more important than any other. While most see tearing down the walls or spraying bleach as the easy jobs, the reality is that all of the work is critical and must be coordinated between the teams. In the world of meta data, every job is important. For example, ensuring data quality is critical to the long-term success of the program. The job has no glory to it and 99% of the time the work goes without much notice. Even with automation, someone must take the responsibility to perform the small tasks. Leadership must ensure that the staff that performs the behind the scenes jobs are appreciated as much as those that focus on the high profile functions.

Multiple Paths but Only One Goal

The goal of mucking is to deconstruct a house down to the studs and base flooring. How this task is done will vary from site to site. The volunteer leadership understands that the basics of deconstruction are fairly simple and, with only a few guidelines, the crew can accomplish the desired goal within the time needed. Does it really matter that you pull the flooring up before yanking the cabinets out? The elements of micromanagement are missing in this environment and should be removed from the meta data project as well. The role of the leader is to provide the vision and allow the skills of the individual to take over. If the team starts going down the wrong path or impacts the timeline then leadership should come in and reevaluate the system. For example, one of the homes had seven layers of flooring that needed to be removed; including concrete on top of the carpet. The complexities of this house increased the amount of time, but everyone understood the impact and leadership quickly assessed the situation. We added additional resources and kept moving; no fingerpointing, no complaining and no CYA activities.

Set a Vision and Get Out of the Way

Can you imagine starting a project with 10 resources with a variety of skills, then without much communications, these resources naturally begin work and develop their roles as the program moved forward? Not in the corporate world: we would be too busy developing work orders, job descriptions, roles and responsibilities. The job of the leader is to provide the vision and then get out of the way. Many times, we value or measure the value of leadership by how much time they spend within the environment. When people know where to go and are doing a good job at getting there, then the only thing leadership can do is mess it up. As a leader, you have selected the best resources, set the expectation of performance, motivated the group to a greater cause and spent time developing each team member; now, go find something to do. The best thing a leader can do for a great group is to allow its members to discover their own greatness (Bennis and Biederman, 1997).

Show Appreciation Whenever Possible

The one thing I noticed during the hurricane relief effort was the number of times the leaders thanked everyone for helping out. Before we headed out to the disaster area, they gave us a small pep talk and expressed appreciation for helping others. With the home owner present, they once again thanked everyone for helping those in need. Again, after supper they talked about the events of the day and thanked everyone. There were no awards, no plaques, no gifts, just a sincere appreciation for the efforts of the day. So how do you get 50 people to work in 95 degree heat, in the worse part of town, under some of the most extreme conditions without pay? Thank them!

Perform the Crappy Jobs

The best example of team work witnessed was where one individual ripped down the drywall while handing it to another person that handed it out the window to a third person that took it to the curb. They had a perfect assembly line going and cleared an entire room in less than an hour. Compare that to another team where all three people worked at pulling down the drywall; everyone was stepping over themselves and the garbage on the floor. They were able to clear the wall in 30 minutes but it took another three hours for someone to come by and clean up the mess they left behind. Leaders should be willing to do those jobs that no one else wants to do. In the world of meta data, there are many jobs that must be done no matter what and many of them are not much fun. Tasks such as time reporting, metrics reviews, engaging difficult customers and validating data loads must be done each and every day. The leader of the group must be the one that initially performs these tasks to establish a definable process. New leaders must also perform these tasks, and in most organizations executives must spend time on the front line learning the business and engaging customers. In the October issue of Harvard Business Review, Cohn (2005) describes how the successor to the CIO at Starbucks spent 90 days on the front lines of the stores as well as the coffee roasting plants.

Utilize the Elements of Storytelling

At one of the houses, we spent 45 minutes listening to an 86 year old describe his home which was well over 100 years old and at one time served as the local grocery store. This gentleman was very articulate and his stories of his life were intriguing and rich with history. He gave us all a sense of purpose of why we were there and why this house needed to be saved. After six years of doing enterprise meta data, we have plenty of stories to tell. Our stories of success, failure and customer service help others understand where meta data has been and the future direction. For a leadership story to have the desired effect, it must meet a certain level of criteria. It must be engaging and memorable. It will usually involve a measure of drama but must also be human, authentic and easy to identify with. The story must set up the unambiguous challenge, explore the actions of the protagonist and connect the protagonist's behavior to a clear outcome. Truly great leadership stories share applicable lessons, prompt internal reflection and instigate debate among listeners (Delin, 2003).

Ensure the Basic Needs are Covered

The volunteer leader ensured that each worker had the tools needed for the job. While one can pull up a tile floor with a hammer, a five foot metal spade can do the job in half the time. The leaders made sure we had plenty of water and no one was getting over heated. Within meta data, the leadership must ensure that the infrastructure, processes and dependable resources are placed on the project from day one. Information workers need tools that will enable them to be more effective and efficient. Tools such as Office products, e-mail, collaboration and repository technologies are essential in delivering long-term value and allowing the team to focus on issues of data management.

John Quincy Adams said "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader." Leadership must set the example of behavior, performance and define the elements of success. Leadership is about influencing others, and if the person in charge of your meta data program can't do this, failure is inevitable. Trust and a commitment to excellence are the cornerstones of building a team. If you want to see who the true leaders are within your company then place them into a volunteer situation. Several years ago, I went to a volunteer site where a director was leading the effort, and he never picked up a hammer, never ensured we had enough water and never once expressed appreciation for those who gave so much. Needless to say, he is no longer considered a leader in my eyes, simply a corporate pawn.

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For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Meta Data.

R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D. is the director of Meta Data Services Group for the BellSouth Corporation, located in Atlanta, Georgia. He has more than 20 years of experience in information technology and speaks around the world on meta data, data architecture and information technology. Stephens recently earned his Ph.D. in information systems and has more than 70 publications in the academic, professional and patent arena. You can reach him via e-mail at Todd@rtodd.com or to learn more visit http://www.rtodd.com/.

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