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First-Principles

August 14, 2019

Situational:

I came across the concept, new to me, of leadership through First-Principles. My interpretation of the idea is as follows.

The difficulty in being consistent as a leader and living up the values of the organization is that each situation is a bit different. We have to begin with the organizational culture as a whole, define “first-principles” in a given case, make our thought process and evaluation clear, and then lead the team based on those principles.

First-principles may be thought of as the core values of the organization, the fundamentally unique attributes of the product or service you are providing—which presumably affirm those core values, both integrated with a sound understanding of the customer’s needs.

Decisions

There are a couple of subtle ideas that need to be highlighted in the First-Principles concept. To begin with, allowing autonomy for our employees means letting them make decisions and handle a project on their own. I have pointed out before that means that the core values and specific intentions for the particular project must be clear and in line with the stated values of the organization.

Given a clear understanding of how you, as the leader, intend to have the core values combined with the product or service attributes presented to the customer, the employees can then implement the project on their own.

Reinforcing the Culture

A second point is that by demonstrating how in a given situation, the core values are to be applied, and which of the core values takes precedence in a particular case, you will reinforce the organizational culture. As Peter Drucker pointed out, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I believe that the single most important job a CEO has is to actively manage the culture.

Product/Service Alignment

The third point is that making sure the product or service being offered is in alignment with the stated corporate values is critical to brand integrity. And it is equally important that your employees and customers make the connection between the core values, the product or service, and the corporate brand.

Integrating It All

I think that the concept of leading by First-Principles is not far off from what I have called “actively managing the corporate culture.” To be fair, though, it does seem to call for a more obvious integration of those things that comprise an organizations culture—Core Values, Employee Autonomy, product or service integrity, and building brand.

I like the idea of viewing our actions as a whole, integrated system rather than looking only at the individual pieces comprising a culture. Such an approach tickles my “systems-thinking” fancy and forces a leader to look at the whole when leading her team.

Example From the Past

As I mentioned, this is a new  (to me) way of expressing the same concepts of leadership that I have been sharing for years. As I was thinking about the practical application, I thought about a particularly successful sales engineer from my past.

The customer was a military supplier. The engineering team was working on a piece of equipment for their customer requiring, what was then, an advanced microcontroller. The engineers found such a controller in our product line and designed it into their system.

However, their purchasing department was not happy with a sole-sourced product. The engineers insisted that the part they selected was the most effective and efficient solution for their design. Luckily, our sales engineer had a great relationship with the purchasing department and was called in to help. The customer’s design was complicated enough that we decided to call in the Field Application Engineer, with more detailed product knowledge, to assist the customer and us.

The result, after a couple of days, was a relatively straightforward change in the customer’s design that would allow for one of our competitors to provide a competing part that would function just as well in the modified equipment design. The First-Principle approach, applied in retrospect, was to integrate two core values (industry-leading customer service, and quality product design), with product integrity (solutions the market required), and building our company brand (a trusted design partner).

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