I came across this illustration on LinkedIn a few days ago. It claims to offer a fresh recipe for the mindset shifts required to transform organisations. It stimulated much thought and reflection about the practicalities of the ideas it imparted. While the best ideas are often simple, is this too simplistic? Does it ignore the realities of organisational and wider societal life? This is morphing at warp speed under the impact of Covid-19. What the end state will, no one is really sure.
Without doubt, change needs to occur. Are the alternatives so firmly locked at the opposite ends of the five linear scales? In other words, rather than “Yes, but…”, don’t we need a “Yes, and” approach? Walt Disney was alleged to answer questions by saying, “Yes, what if we did this…?”. By doing so, he responds positively to the principle of the idea while “reviewing and refining” it. This remains an organisation habit across the entertainment conglomerate.
Is the optimal case for organisational leaders to cultivate the cultural flexibility to display aspects of all the attributes of the labels? The article does not need to be read in one go. Consider each of the five “shifts” separately over their own mug of tea or coffee.
Profit to purpose or purposeful profit?
The topic of organisational purpose appears to be a modern phenomenon. Yet in 1996, Harvard Business Review published Jim Collins’s and Jerry Porras’s seminal article, “Building your Company’s Vision”, see https://hbr.org/1996/09/building-your-companys-vision. “Core ideology consists of core values and core purpose. Core purpose is a raison d’être, not a goal or business strategy.”
An organisation needs both purpose and financial nous to generate an acceptable return that reflects the underlying risks. In the opening commentary of their book “Entrusted”, Ong Boon Hwee and Mark Goyder mention Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s state investment. Formed in 1974, its annualised return amounts to 15%. Currently, this may appear egregious when interest rates are near zero (negative in some places, e.g. Japan). Yet during Temasek’s existence, base rates were not single digit, they spent many months above 10%. So, to consider its long-term financial performance as corporate larceny is probably misguided. Currently, to achieve such a return in a single year is more dubious. Consider this report from The Times about Jacob Rees Mogg’s Somerset Capital, see https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/jacob-rees-mogg-set-for-800-000-dividend-from-somerset-capital-management-g6dwr9zvl.
Reliance on purpose is no guarantee that firms will be run honourably, however. Fortunes are paid to craft the underlying purpose statement, associated vision and values. Yet, are there instances when such statements provide a cloak that shroud Machiavellian leadership practices that eventually destroy profit, if not kill the enterprise? This article cites a number of scandals in the past decade, https://www.fastcompany.com/90444328/these-are-the-worst-scandals-of-the-last-decade. In my own experience, I helped trim the sails at one of the banks that presaged the PPI mis-selling scandal.
The debate that is cooking (sorry) about banning advertising of junk food before 9pm is relevant, too. What is the purpose of the fast-food industry that ranges in size from global leviathan to single outlet; to feed people cheaply or healthily? Can’t both be achieved, and without involving any bedroom gymnastics, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/flirty-mcdonald-s-chief-steve-easterbrook-vowed-to-eradicate-sexual-harassment-6g2m26jqt?!
Hierarchies to networks or networked hierarchies?
Hierarchies can and do accommodate networks, both formal and informal. I do not advocate autocracies, command and control, or “my way or the highway” dictatorships. They crush individuality, creativity, innovation, and autonomy. However, one great advantage is crystal clear clarity about accountability and responsibility.
- As a boss, you are accountable for what happens in your organisation.
- Your team are responsible for the decisions they take about how they behave and engage with each other, clients, and suppliers.
Such clarity needs to be seen in networks too – an individual must be seen as ultimately accountable. Without it, risks arise; for instance, impulsiveness, i.e. “I can do this…”, or prevarication, i.e. “Not my call, it’s theirs…”, affect decision making. Consequently, are networks handicapped by producing more compromise than consensus?
Being “top dog” and, therefore, accountable should not produce the Trumpian self-aggrandisement of “Only I can do it”. Combining this to pointing the finger of blame when things stutter and fail produces a dreadful two-faced, Janusean leadership style. Networks, including the concept of “agile” teams, is not new practice, more an exercise in corporate lexicography. I worked on many “cross-functional, multi-disciplinarian teams” that implemented seismic change in retail banking. Their composition waxed and waned as scheduled activity necessitated some expertise being returned to its home function and fresh skills imported from others. Throughout, however, there was a clear and visible, very able leader.
Every Agile team member needs to understand how they are accountable and/or responsible for contributing to achieving the goals. This is vital for effective performance and development management. Things move too quickly to await an annual appraisal. Performance assessment should occur in real-time, i.e. be constant and consistent. After all, feedback is a gift and giving gifts should always be a pleasant experience.
Networks need to be characterised by generating a vigorous stream of feedback about behaviours. Do they authentically reflect the organisation’s values? How much is this absent from the fiascos currently occurring across the UK’s health and education sectors? Quite who or what entity is accountable and responsible for what?
Don Simpson, the American film producer said, “It’s not how you play the game, it is how you place the blame.”
Controlling to empowering or empowered control?
I prefer to ditch the words “control” and “empower” and talk instead about “Servant Leadership”, see Robert Greenleaf’s seminal work. This leadership style positions yourself as serving those teams and individuals who report to you. They do not serve you, in the worst instances expecting them to genuflect as they pass you in the corridor.
Servant Leadership demands an honest approach to leading. Being an accountable leader, as President Harry S. Truman’s famous sign on his desk recognised, “the buck stops here”. In the best organisations, the high performing leader includes people in establishing aims and objectives. They never shy away from accepting their accountability when things fail. Some will even fall on their sword. By seeking your team’s opinions, counsel, and advice on what can be done it is far more likely to be accomplished. You listen more than you talk – two ears versus one mouth.
Who should you listen to the most? Always those who are in most regular contact with the customer because they really understand their evolving needs and expectations. By listening to your employees you also gain first-hand understanding of their needs; most importantly, how do they wish to be served by you?
What are their preferred terms for the “psychological contract” that configures how you will work together? This contract is so vital to informing a climate of psychological safety, crucial in maintaining mental health and well-being. I hear cries of disdain, “You’re creating a holiday camp!” Wrong! It concerns building, nurturing, and sustaining a great place to work, see https://www.anevenbetterplacetowork.com/. A happy, motivated team will challenge themselves and yourself as leader to achieve so much more.
Jumping back into the political pool again, consider Max Hastings’ recent column, “This lapdog cabinet is weakest in a century” (see https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/this-lapdog-cabinet-is-the-weakest-in-a-century-zwqjqgzg0).
The throbbing beat of Servant Leadership sets the dance tempo for effective feedback, which has a distinctive, well-configured, five-step choreography. Dancing these steps avoids treading on toes ; by relying evidence, praise becomes authentic, and criticism is not felt as a bludgeon to the back of the head.
- Check for readiness to receive feedback – very often simply asking, “Can I give you some feedback” triggers that readiness.
- Explain what you wish to talk about, e.g. contribution to last meeting. Ask the other person to give their thoughts first.
- Provide your evidential, observations, e.g. you were texting on your phone all meeting, or your answer to the CFO’s question was concise and precise. Remember feedback includes giving praise as well as being a critical friend.
- Discuss the two views that have been expressed, are they in accord or divergent? If the latter, further discussion must occur to broker consensus. This may necessitate agreeing to allocate time to discuss this.
- Agree the next steps, i.e. doing more of the good stuff or being attentive to falling back into delivering dysfunctional behaviour.
It is worth mentioning that sometimes in step 4 a leader may feel compelled to exert their positional power. That is a privilege they may choose to exert. It is prone to abuse, however. If things turn out less well than anticipated, do they fail to admit to their error of judgement? Likewise, an employee who decides to ignore colleagues’ counsel to err on the side of caution and JFDIs. Failure to recognise their impetuosity red lights an urgent, behavioural development need.
Through Servant Leadership, this dance can be led by a leader or an employee. This enables the latter to deliver feedback upwards. To achieve this, swap around steps 2 and 3 so the person giving feedback states their view first. Step 1 must still be taken!
Consider this lovely story from a global hotel group. A hotel receptionist asked the visiting CEO (not Jeremy Renner) if they could give him some feedback. The hotel had issued a revised dress code, which included how a tie should be tied. The CEO arrived with his tie askance and his shirt’s top button undone. The receptionist pointed this out to him and saying she was disappointed because the internal communication announcing the code bore his name. The CEO responded positively, thanking the receptionist for saying what she said and apologising for his lackadaisicalness.
After his visit to the hotel, which was one of the mid-range brands in the group’s portfolio, the CEO organised a weekend for the receptionist and her family at one of the group’s five-star hotels. Naturally, this story spread like wildfire. The candour of subsequent conversations increased markedly, never condemning the person, always homed in on an observable behaviour – play the ball never the player (ouch!).
Planning to experimentation or experimental planning?
There is an old, alliterative UK army phrase, “Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance”, or 7Ps for short. Inflexible, rigid planning of the Soviet five-year plan format is not effective, yet well-orchestrated strategic, tactical, and organisational planning is. Peter Snow the TV historian described the D-day plans as tactics within the strategy to retake Europe from the Nazis. Activities like building the Mulberry Harbours were operational plans to facilitate the logistics of moving kit and equipment from sea to land.
Planning helps determine the current situation, i.e. the origin point to any change journey. Without knowing this, you cannot take the first step to a desired destination with any certainty. You don’t know in which direction to move. Planning should always be an inclusive activity for it to be “our plan” not theirs, i.e. the C-suite’s. This view arises when a remote strategic planning team plans in isolation from the rest of the organisation. Neither Clarity nor sense of ownership will prevail.
Significant innovation has arisen out of organisations noted for their approach to planning, e.g. Barclays Bank. In 1966 it launched the UK’s first credit card and in 1987 its first debit card. Incidentally, the proposal to launch the credit card was made to the bank’s Board in a two-page, foolscap paper report! Some interim papers for elements of the debit card development ran to many dozens of pages. At the height of the financial crash in 2008, I read that one proposal to support the launch of a new derivative ran to over 1,000 pages. Why the loss of brevity?
Done efficiently and effectively, planning is not a bureaucratic labour-intensive cottage industry. This challenge appears to be the root of Gary Hamel’s latest book, “Humanocracy”, see https://www.amazon.co.uk/Humanocracy-Creating-Organizations-Amazing-People/dp/1633696022/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=humanocracy&qid=1597765812&sr=8-1.
Importantly, sound planning can unequivocally link purpose and profit. A well-crafted plan will enable people to see how their function and role contributes to delivering their organisation’s aims. To identify and slay the many sacred cows that graze across an organisation requires vigorous dialogue. Ideally, this will involve people from all parts of the organisation. Such groups will pose tough questions about what is being done as well as how. This means scrutinising activities some may perceive at odds with an organisation’s values. Such debate forces unconscious biases to bubble to the surface, at which point they must be addressed. What signals emerge when an employee says the organisation must plan to have gender balance in both roles and pay and the C-suite equivocates?
Another saying is “Two brains are better than one”. Multiply this many times over and a firm can draw on a many perceptions. It becomes what Peter Senge calls a “learning organisation”. This need not cause paralysis by analysis. Positively, it can do much to prompt considered and conscious thought about the “what ifs?”. If far more extensive thought had been given to the value of having available in-date and effective Personal Protection Equipment rather than its cost, how many lives would have been saved from the first wave of Covid-19?
Planning can help stimulate a corporate mentality of continuous improvement through setting milestones and points of review and learning. It will also help carve out time and space in which people innovate and experiment. They do so keeping their eye on the ball of maintaining excellence and quality within the span of current activity. How much experimention will arise from setting a goal to derive 20% of profit in three years from products not sold today?
Planning does not need to restrict; it sets the field of play as do the tramlines on a tennis court – new balls, please!
Privacy and transparency or translucent privacy?
There are always things that people must keep private, e.g. one’s password to your mobile banking application. Likewise firms, e.g. competitively advantageous IP. Conversely, there are some things people try to keep private that belong in the public domain. Here lies the purpose of the fourth estate, but without the need to resort to phone hacking, however.
Whistleblowing remains necessary in organisations that are led by egotists who consider themselves infallible. Firms led by Servant Leaders adopt far greater openness by welcoming challenge and critique.
The egotistical CEOs should not attempt to prize open the whistleblowing process in an attempt to see who said what. Consider these two articles, https://www.personneltoday.com/hr/barclays-ceo-fined-642k-over-whistleblower-probe/ and https://www.dauk.org/news/2020/3/1/dauk-working-with-the-sunday-times-to-reveal-full-story-in-west-suffolk-hospital-whistleblowing-saga.
Another article about the need for visionaries to assume the top roles in banks mentions one potential candidate. However, allegations that his firm spied on its employees removes his candidature, see https://www.thetimes.co.uk/past-six-days/2020-08-11/business/banks-need-visionaries-not-just-cost-cutters-if-they-are-to-prosper-j65rm6zwg.
Organisations are entirely responsibile for keeping their customers’ and clients’ data secure and private. It is not a cost-line to skimp upon. Data breaches are as malignant a feature of corporate activity as causing pollution or forcing employees to work in unsafe conditions. Hierarchies make it clear who is accountable for the breaches; the law should enable successful prosecutions. Sadly, this doesn’t always seem to work as it should, consider Dido Harding and the data breach at Talk Talk, see https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/talk-talk-boss-dido-hardings-utter-ignorance-lesson-us/1370062.
Where openness should prevail far more is in diversity and pay. Consider Norway with its open tax system (something that would scare the pants off perma-orange The Donald!). If made far more transparent, more people would appreciate what effort and, more importantly, outcomes, elicit reward, especially for failure. In a complaint I made to a hospital that treated my wife abysmally when she had an operation, the CEO’s contract had four primary objectives. That financial management was listed ahead of patient safety may be the causality of my wife’s experience! Looking at the performance of the institution, it missed all four targets. Yet he was paid a bonus. Meanwhile the impoverished nurses had to pay to park their cars in the privately managed car parks. How, why?
The provenance of goods and services sourced through complex, global procurement chains is often shrouded behind smoke and mirrors. Only when an investigative journalist explores a scandal that arises about fatalities in a suppliers’ sweat-shop factory or the devastation flora and fauna’s pristine, natural habitat does this obfuscation disappear. In this age of “big data”, surely it is not unfeasible to provide complete details of suppliers. This may make some novel apps that attempt to compute a product’s CO2 footprint more appealing, see https://www.economist.com/the-world-if/2020/07/04/what-if-technology-tracked-all-carbon-emissions.
For any organisation to achieve its varied aims, it needs a deftness and dexterity of touch and capability. There is rarely a case where the approach is either / or. Such finesse is like a fine sauce, it is entirely dependent upon the blend of a hard to perfect roux. Stir carefully!