Never mind leadership

Did you see the New Zealand Weekend Herald article: Never mind leadership, get on with your job? “Bosses should stop encouraging employees to become leaders – and teach them how to be followers instead” says Professor Birgit Schyns.

I couldn’t disagree more. Yet,  it does depend on how you define leadership. If you see it as a title or role, there is a lot relying on a few to have great character or to have had great mentoring or training (or a combination of all three). Failure to get this right exposes organisations to under-performance at best (which in a competitive world can be economically fatal) and power abuse at worst. (Ask the average employee about the costs and lost productivity from a bad boss. Most people have had one or know someone who has.)

Signs that organisations commonly fail the leadership test:

  • A bad boss (according to Gallup research of a million employees worldwide) is the #1 reason for wasteful attrition
  • Personal grievances compound workplace stress and stress (that escalates and spreads through the workplace like influenza) is associated with costly errors, reworks and productivity issues
  • Perceived lack of communication: “being kept in the dark and fed on $%#^”
  • The observation that “New Zealand is over-managed and under-led”

One thing Prof Birgit Schyns (of Durham University Business School) says that I agree with is that employees “….should be alerting the leader to flaws in the decision making, pointing out that this is not going to work for their customers. They have a lot of important information that the leader needs to know.” (The prof doesn’t say if she has had a go at telling the boss they’ve got it wrong.)

In the 90’s, legendary rugby union captain, Zinzan Brooke, made a statement that profoundly influenced my own approach to business: “I want 15 captains on the field.” Was this a recipe for disaster? Quite the opposite.

Having studied both first hand and at a distance the key criteria for organisation success, it is pretty well clear that a leading TEAM will always outperform a leader outnumbered by followers i.e. vertical control with little room for critical mass real contribution and collective responsibility.

Ralph Stayer knew this when he pointed out that hunters know how to overcome a herd of buffalo: you take out the head buffalo. He knew his very successful business was at risk by virtue of his leadership (centralised control?). The real and imminent risk of this scared him into action. His business transformation is now folklore but simply put he said: “I had to learn how to become a coach.” An early action was to put workers in charge of what had previously been done by the bosses.

The leadership our organisations need is that which is inside every person, every situation. Leadership is ACTION the current situation needs. People only show leadership if they understand the business model, the context and the role they and their team plays in the entire value chain. And people only show leadership if it is not only expected, but required.

The real question is: Are those in charge ready to put the best interests of shareholders, clients and other strategic stakeholders ahead of their own?

Posted in Managing for business success | Leave a comment

Natural Selection – All Blacks team is announced

Few were surprised with the naming of the All Blacks World Cup squad – sure there were a couple of surprise inclusions and omissions but considering the planned style of play and competition rules around replacements, the squad makes sense.

Is the selection of the World Cup squad a key determinant in success or failure? Sure, it has a role to play but perhaps there are even more important success factors (in both sport and business.) Any business owner and sports coach will tell you there is a world of difference between potential and actual performance of any person.

Firstly, the Expectation environment: what people believe is expected of them and the non-negotiables.

The coaching team (it seems) has been extremely careful with setting up the thinking (‘mindset’) of the team – semantics matter. How often over the last few days have we heard that the Cup is not ours to defend. We don’t hold it any more. We have to win it all over again. (Strongly aware of the importance of thinking as the driver of behaviours.)

Secondly, the Team ethos. This is the (both) overt and covert AGREEMENT (a form of contracting) to do whatever it takes to be successful. (Thinking back to the pressures of 2011, I recall a cartoon of a seagull covered with oil after the Rena oil spill with the caption “Don’t worry about me. How’s Richie McCaw’s foot?”)

Agreement goes hand in hand with expectations. As social creatures, we understand agreements (e.g. all driving on the same side of the road when heading in a certain direction.)

Last week, Sir Graham Henry told the story about the 2008 Tri-nations – the year after the abysmal 2007 World Cup. Unbeknown to the coaching team, Richie McCaw called a meeting of the team at 4am before the 19-hour flight to SA. (The team had to win in Cape Town and a week later in Brisbane to win the trophy.) Who knows what was said in those wee hours but the team won 19-0 in Cape Town (first time they had kept the Springboks scoreless) and went on, a week later, to win in Brisbane.

Jerome Kaino when interviewed recently, recalled a period of time when he was not selected for the All Blacks and how he ‘went off the rails’ for a while. What brought him back was what he felt he owed to the players – past and present. The legacy of the jersey and the responsibility that goes with this created a strong expectation. This is a unique form of pressure – an invitation to respond. When people respond to this call, it is a fundamental, bone-deep commitment to go as far as they can with all that they have – to leave nothing in the tank.

As we remember how we felt four years ago, it is useful to remind ourselves that the same principles of success are as true then as they are now.

  1. Expectations: Setting up the right environment of expectations and aspiration. The All Blacks said in 2011: “We welcome the pressure – we walk towards the pressure.”
  2. Team ethos: Agreeing to do whatever it takes for success. Not only are the players respectful of the enormity of the challenge, but committed to improvement with each game (a commitment that Richie McCaw specifically refers to, that surely has much to do with his longevity at a world class level.)
  3. Scrupulous planning, taking into account the current rules and competitor strategies to decide on your game plan for success today (while anticipating the future).
  4. Monitoring and reviewing progress and extracting the lessons for adjustments and next-stage planning and improvements.

Every organisation has its own success formula but most of the elements are common across all type of enterprise. And as Air New Zealand has shown, getting the formula right is well worth the hard work and effort.

Posted in Organisation success | 2 Comments

Accelerated CHANGE

It’s not true that people hate change. (Ask any lotto winner!) What human beings hate is punishment – it is especially tortuous when seen as undeserved, unwarranted and unnecessary. Most managers of change are not ready to concede that they could be instruments of torture but it’s all in the eye of the beholder and perception is reality.

For many (even most), the reality is that change is unrelenting, exhausting, awful and inflicted on them by others. For organisations, change invariably fails. (“The brutal fact is that about 70% of all change initiatives fail.” Harvard Business Review

‘Management of change’ is of course an oxymoron. All change is social – change must be led and leadership is often missing from change projects.
Acknowledging the start point means you can improve the odds:

  • Most organisations are set up along party lines – divide and rule rather than mobilize and unite. The result is them/us, powerful/powerless, persecutor/victim
  • Few people believe they are the masters of their own destiny – no one has seriously challenged the view that they are victims of others’ decisions
  • The normal human brain reacts to this vulnerability in a primal fight-or-flight, attack-before- you’re-attacked response. Mistrust, suspicion, deception and embedded resistance builds. A fog of emotional and social turmoil makes steering a successful course difficult if not impossible, no matter how slick the roadshow. All too often, the change vehicle shudders to a grinding halt, even rolling backwards.

A positive start point is where people feel involved, consulted (as subject experts not patronized) and treated like what they actually are – partners in success (or otherwise). With this as your start point, people are agile, creative beings who dig deep and go to extraordinary lengths to make every endeavour work, no matter what the challenges.

If you have never seen people at their best, it’s time to cut through to the REAL power in the organisation to fuel your change initiative. A Change project of any kind is a great opportunity to unite the will and mobilize capability…….full throttle ahead.

When reputations are on the line and promises must be kept to project funders:

  • Accept that all change is social – successful change is led (not task-managed)
  • Get ahead of the need for change – transition to a change-ready state and stay there (Ready for tomorrow, today)
  • Charge everyone with responsibility for continuous change – doing more with less, with fresh thinking
  • Manage in real time with each person and unit kept in touch with how they are performing and what to change with what effect
  • Get ahead of the social collaboration curve. Check out the Spotify culture video(s)

For an afternoon of inspiration and ideas, join like-minded project sponsors at a ‘masterclass’ to explore, debate and develop proven strategies to get cut-through with your change initiative. Wellington 19 August and Auckland 3 September – 2pm-6pm (More information at +64 21 923 318)

Posted in How to change people | Leave a comment

Workplace from hell?

Gene Palmer, worker suspected of helping two convicts escape Dannemora prison in New York State, was quoted:
“With the money they pay you’ll go bald, you’ll have high blood pressure, you’ll become an alcoholic, you’ll divorce and then you’ll kill yourself,” he said, calling the workplace a “negative” environment.

Is there a case to be made that a disenchanted and alienated employee can be driven to the dark side? Is this merely at the extreme end of the ‘presenteeism’ scale that keeps organisations challenged as to how to keep people away from facebook and gainfully ‘employed’ for the requisite hours they are ‘clocked in’?

As with most things there are two sides. Having seen the conditions under which prison staff, supervisors and managers work, I have some sympathy. These are people working under the most extreme pressure. Can you imagine the quality of leadership required to keep people, every minute of every hour, on the right side of the ledger? This challenge is huge and unrelenting. Lives depend on it. Is it likely that such leadership exists in every corner of every prison?

Great leadership is hardly in abundance. It is all too rare. From retail stores to mines, leadership and ‘the human factor’ are, in some form or another, under constant pressure. There is a potential Gene Palmer in all too many workplaces; where people, year after year, feel insignificant, objectified, bypassed or patronised by an uncaring or possibly misguided, misinformed or even well-meaning employer. (That famous line about Mushroom Management where people are “kept in the dark and fed with s&^%.”)

In the 80s, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman published a book called “In Search of Excellence” which revealed the connection between real employee involvement in an enterprise and success across a range of metrics. A key factor was where employees felt (emphasis on emotion) significant and critical to business success……where they were trusted, informed and required to be the best of themselves.

At that time, it was not so much surprising as it was a relief that indeed it is profitable when a workplace aligns with the full actualization of human potential. “Not a normal person with something added but a normal person with nothing taken away.” (Charles Garfield)

Thirty years on, those organisations that get this right are still too few and finding them is still the search it ever was. There are all manner of theories as to why this is. The real question is: when will organisations call time on outmoded ways of thinking and managing and enjoy the type of success where everyone wins?

Posted in Leadership | 2 Comments

You get what you expect

When expectations propel you to brilliance – to your full potential – expectations are great. When they threaten, they debilitate.

Contrast the last Rugby World Cup and the recent Cricket World Cup.

During the last Rugby World Cup, we expected – demanded that – the All Blacks be in the final, and win. We were not going to settle for anything less. They got there but did we really enjoy that tournament? There was an air of desperation with each game. Each win a relief as opposed to excitement. (The cruel taunts of George Gregan fresh in our ears from previous failed campaigns – “Another 4 years!”) They won – but at huge personal (and health!) cost.

For the recent Cricket World Cup, we were delighted with each win, exuberant at the possibility of doing the impossible…… Even though we lost the final, we responded with sober acceptance. This was reality. It is not as if the wrong team won.

How does this translate into business? The lessons are profound. Am I saying expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed? Certainly not. The Pygmalion Effect is well researched and reveals quite clearly that positive expectations are part of what influences peak performance. It is the manner in which expectations are expressed and experienced that makes all the difference.

The complications are that:

  1. The expectations have to come from someone significant to count
  2. In organisations, someone ‘significant’ means someone with power
  3. Having power over others is usually threatening and often leads to people reacting in a range of ways that are usually defensive – hardly the setting for aspiration and growth.

Therein lies the problem. If staff experience expectations as unreasonable and the leader as out of touch, they will react negatively. They may even experience your input (read: demands) as heavy-handed and oppressive (even bullying).

Key questions:

  • How do you avoid such a backlash while still setting high standards for delivering as required by stakeholders to ensure continuation of your business unit?
  • How do you prevent people reacting to performance expectations with fear of failure which drives performance down (as people work to cover their behinds, avoid risk, use subterfuge and focus on proving failure was due to factors outside of their control)?

Having great expectations of people is essential for their success. So is your basic belief that they are capable of anything under the right conditions. The secret is to uncover those conditions and implement them consistently, no matter what. With our rich history of success in both sport and business, those conditions are surely well proven and frequently discussed and documented.

Use this as a checklist – implement these and then you can expect that the sky is the limit:

  1. A belief that people want to succeed and are a rich untapped source of new ways of succeeding more smartly and quickly
  2. Appropriate selection of people for the team plus crystal clarity about what success in THIS team requires of each person
  3. Agreements (pacts) with the team and individuals about their contribution to team success and how they will monitor and self-correct to ensure success for everyone
  4. Agree that everyone will track their own contribution using performance indicators that give early signals of success or otherwise for quick adjustment of actions to ensure success
  5. Membership of the team means signing up to agreed team success factors and putting the team’s purpose and positive impact first

A comes before E in the dictionary. Remember that before you can EXPECT anything of anyone, you have to have their willing and informed AGREEMENT. Without this, you will at best waste time and cause conflict and at worst, fail. Can you afford that?

Posted in Organisation success | 2 Comments

Brains trust

The brain is firmly on our radar. Not only did Brain scientist Dr Jill Bolte-Taylor open the Better-by-Design summit last week, but it is the New Zealand Neurological Foundation’s Brain Awareness week.

Dr Jill Bolte-Taylor’s inspirational and courageous journey of recovery after a debilitating stroke proved that older is not less functional, injured is not ‘out’ and experience (plus belief and support of those around you) counts most when the chips are down. But ‘the extraordinary’ can take time. Nature generally doesn’t work to deadlines.

Her experienced, well-myelinated brain (after years of gradual hooking up of millions of valuable cross-referencing connections) watched on as she experienced a traumatic stroke-induced brain injury. This left her with no language – an inability to communicate with the outside world and unable to process any logical thought. Her persistence with brain exercises supported by a devoted team – her mum front and centre on this team – provided the perfect conditions for neurogenesis. She re-grew her brainware and reconnected what had been lost.

Yes, we do really control and determine what happens inside our brain-body. She now considers herself fully recovered, but it took 8 years.

Imagine if someone ignorant had convinced her it couldn’t be done just because it never had. And imagine if that ignorant person was wearing a white coat. Fortunately, as she was ‘a white coat’ herself, that would not have fazed her. Many of us are still susceptible to the power (suggestion) of a medical diagnosis and its debilitating effect on our subconscious. Is there any expert, conventionally-educated, who would have believed she could recover fully?

How many of us, for that matter,  really believed the New Zealand Black Caps could make it through to the finals of the ICC World Cup? While these two events may seem unrelated, what is common to both is an organ that creates the ‘impossible’, even while those who doubt are saying ‘it can’t be done.’

Yet here we are in the ICC finals due to numerous factors such as experience, expertise, new and fresh blood, persistence, belief, hope and aspiration. (Plus a nurturing, plugged-in and supportive coaching/management/sponsorship team – like the glial cells in the brain that are there to provide the active cells with what they need to perform as required.)

Behind all extraordinary achievement lies a snapping, crackling, popping human brain – the most complex protoplasm in the universe. A hundred billion nerve cells capable of far more connections (allowing rich thought-traffic) than we currently have and use (possibly due to years of wasted opportunity and/or stress), and capable, even with the modest brain network we currently use, of creating what does not currently exist in the world.

This gives a glimpse of the untapped potential that lies within every business. While the complete rebooting of her brain took Jill Bolte-Taylor 8 years, managers tell me they have completely changed their way of thinking inside 8 weeks, to the benefit of their performance, their relationships and their results.

Simply put, no business can perform to potential without harnessing the collective genius of the brains on the payroll.

The conditions for super-performance are simple and consistent:

  • A compelling desire to succeed (or stretch for something….even mere curiosity)
    (Well-articulated and most importantly, SHARED, vision)
  • A positive belief that success is possible
    (Leaders who believe in people – their capability, talent and potential)
  • An emotionally-safe setting i.e. the opposite of fight/flight stress so that brain power turns away from self-protection and towards self-actualisation
    (A partnership – not power-based/hierarchical – approach to every work challenge) 
  • Daily practice/activity/experience
    (Enough daily challenges i.e. ‘business as usual’)

The human brain as a natural (unlimited) resource is the un-mined gold within every business. This is the ultimate competitive edge that lies just beneath the surface of ‘business-as-usual’.

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Redundant thinking?

“I’ve been made redundant.” One example of self-abuse. Each word a deliberate self-flogging. This is not mere semantics. Say those words aloud and reflect on your:

  • Thoughts
  • Feelings
  • Power
  • Motivation

Alternatively say: “I have a great opportunity now to get what I really want out of life – it’s now or never…….” Reconsider your thoughts, feelings, power, motivation. Sense the difference?

Thought quality is fundamental to life success. Constant inner (or expressed) narration about events around you directly affects your emotions, mood, physiology……. and eventually this shows up as your life circumstances. A person’s narration of events has little to do with reality ‘out there’. YOU run your thought-programme, don’t you? Or do you allow your thoughts to be left to chance or invaded by others who may have a range of agendas? Don’t. It is too important.

Thoughts and feelings drive brain chemistry developing neural networks that directly determine your thoughts, feelings and actions, in that order. These in turn significantly influence your life circumstances.

Given this vicious (or victorious) cycle in this cause-effect loop, you can see that every thought is a cost or a benefit and eventually determines your life – quality of life, sense of happiness and fulfillment.

For 2015, decide to:

  • Choose your thoughts in each situation
  • Narrate your life from a place of optimism and enthusiasm, both health-boosting states

If your current employment contract ends abruptly, deliberately script your narration about this e.g.: “The organisation is heading in a different direction” or “It’s important to be in a situation where my capability and contribution is valued – if not here, then where?”

This is not the same as living in denial. Stay relevant and valuable:

  • Seek honest feedback from a variety of sources about the value you contribute to causes, to results, to situations and to people
  • Stay networked with people you associate with your future aspirations
  • Continuously improve your value as an essential strategy to secure your future
  • All the while, manage your internal thoughts and feelings to remain positive, upbeat and enthusiastic – especially when circumstances are dire. This is how you stand out from the crowd.

This approach will not only make you healthier, it will optimise your wealth, in every sense of the word.

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