Nothing new under the sun

I realised a couple of weeks ago that I haven’t had a proper break from my work for two years.  Suddenly, I felt wearied.  Accordingly, I furled in my sails and allowed myself to float about on the waves of content concerning leadership, organisational design and development, culture, purpose, values, and finance that flood into my Inbox. 

All the big consultancies and individual practitioner experts like myself issue so much stuff from articles to webinars to videos to memes to animations to… well, nothing new.  In writing my essay, I’m conscious I risk adding to the cacophony. 

However, my aim is to identify some “crotchets of note” that will scythe through the noise. Hopefully, these will provide a clear tempo for healthy organisations to create the conditions that raise rather than harm the well-being of the individuals who work there.

I’m old enough to remember the Irish entertainer Val Doonican singing about O’Rafferty’s motor car, “… used to be as black as me father’s hat, now it’s forty shades of green”.  This seems to fit with all I’ve been reading, watching, and listening to.  Material is cited as being distinct, discrete, and differential in its hue, yet so much appears to be another Pantone shade of grey (rather than green).  

All this got me thinking about whether the principles of leadership that I first encountered in a book from 1968 called “Motivation and Organisational Climate” written by George Litwin and Robert Stringer contain the golden threads on which we should not lose our cognitive and physical grasp.  Their work was informed and influenced by that of David McClelland, Kurt Lewin, and Robert Blake and Jane Mouton amongst many. 

McClelland’s work on motivation identifies people having three main motivational drivers, achievement, affiliation, and power.  The latter has two faces, personalised and social or institutional.  Are we mistakenly celebrating some leaders’ personalised power?  What risks arise from their “must win, me, me, me” drive?  For instance, how much is the pandemic crisis and our world standing on the brink of climate catastrophe due to this self-centred rather than selfless leadership (see later)?  As we combat the global climate challenge, what must be done to nurture and sustain healthy climates in organisations? 

Organisational Climate – what is it?

Climate is defined as “How it feels to work here”, so very much about the mood or nature of a work environment, the sentiments of the people who work there.  Climate comprises six measurable dimensions, the first and most important of which is Clarity

This marvellous video from the Captain of the US Submarine Sante Fe spells out with absolute clarity what Clarity is about, namely Intent or Purpose, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqmdLcyES_Q.  Intent is the why we exist to do what we do.  As a leader, what is the only order you retain the right to utter and expect compliance?

How do you build Clarity?  By taking an inclusive and involving approach to defining it.  I have had the good fortune of working with St. Louis based Christie Albrecht, https://www.linkedin.com/in/christiealbrecht/, who curates a marvellously involving approach to determining vision, mission, and big hairy audacious goals (BHAGs).  I first encountered BHAGs in Jerry Porras and Jim Collins’s HBR article, “Building Your Company’s Vision”.  That Christie is on another continent doesn’t matter.  Using technology, she can wield her conductor’s baton and orchestrate an energising process to devise a strategic plan that everyone considers their own rather than being the property of the C-suite. 

Clarity polished by Involvement facilitates stronger senses of Challenge.  The old goal-setting mnemonic of SMART becomes more viable by adding an additional, collaborative A for Actionable.  As there is ownership to the plan, there is greater willingness to challenge, “We can do better…”, “We can do more…”, “We can innovate…”.  Through this collectivism another dimension of Climate materialises, a positive Change Orientation. Maintaining the status quo is less likely to be acceptable. At the very least people recognise things must evolve and, at times, matters need standing on their head.   

These conditions of Climate can be strengthened considerably by understanding more deeply and broadly the future complexion of the marketplace. This can be facilitated by tapping into the views and opinions of the global population of “changemakers” that Jane Dalton, https://www.linkedin.com/in/janedalton/, and Marlou Cornelissen, https://www.linkedin.com/in/marloucornelissen/, can access through their new venture Global Parlez, https://globalparlez.com/.

By virtue of people feeling they own the plan, the final two dimensions of Climate arise.  Autonomy sees people accepting responsibilty for their decisions and actions, especially in terms of raising the customer experience and deepening employee engagement.  Recognition relates to establishing a genuine meritocracy that rewards effort and outcomes.  When expectations are not met, there is appropriate, timely challenge, support, development and, where necessary, sanction. 

These two attributes will prove crucial to organisations as they shift from pre-pandemic mode of working to the new hybrid version that has trust as its foundation. Where the work can be done remotely, if that is employees’ preference should they not be trusted to do so? Leaders demanding a return to the office so by reinstating the stress and expense of the daily commute that reduces the time available to be with ones family appears a retrograde behaviour. Is it also incredibly conceited if in their lofty positions they are ferried to and from work in a chauffered driven limosene, e.g. some senior bankers? Lord Wolfson, the CEO of UK retailer Next, has remarked about his employees harnessing technology to re-fuel lost creativity seen at the outset of the pandemic. Also, that their stress levels are far lower from not commuting and choosing their hours of work. Things are still getting done.

Elsewhere, the “great resignation” or “big quit” is starting to materialise as people recognise life can be lived on one’s own terms rather than that of an employer’s, see https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-great-office-exodus-gathers-pace-covid-lockdown-x9x0c5bnx and https://hbr.org/2021/09/who-is-driving-the-great-resignation. By not detoxifying an organisation’s Climate, leaders can quickly see gaping holes in their employee population.

Meritocracies do not just consider the quantity of work.  Quality does too, particularly concerning respecting a firm’s published corporate values.  In a genuinely open and transparent meritocracy, skills, knowledge, and behaviours are the primary factors in assessing performance and potential.  Experience needs some cautious attention because therein lie possible biases towards ethnicity, gender, even a person’s diction – consider the furore that arose from Sir Digby Jones criticising Alex Scott’s speech, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/digby-jones-and-alex-scott-simply-have-different-accents-l97f2qfzt and https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/no-professor-speaking-properly-still-matters-h70cq9fq0).  It is imperative that we learn to discern every person’s potential by disregarding the mask of their outward appearance.

Digby Jones
Alex Scott

In a healthy Climate, it is far more acceptable to have come up short through honouring values than beating the mark by trampling them into the ground, although not consistently.  Those that deliver duplicitously will get caught out and shown the door.  Furthermore, increasingly firms stewarded by leaders that turn a blind eye to values being disregarded will soon lose their customers, suppliers, and investors for fear of contamination by association. 

A great role model of Recognition is Dan Price, follow him on LinkedIn, https://www.linkedin.com/in/danpriceseattle/.  I get the sense that the Climate at Gravity Payments is really positive.   Likewise, James Timpson, the CEO of Timpsons, the UK’s leading shoe repairer (as well as a portfolio of other businesses), follow him on Twitter, https://twitter.com/JamesTCobbler, and read his regular column in the Sunday Times.

Dan Price

Climate is the outcome of culture

Organisational culture is defined as “How we do things here”, so is far less centred on people’s perceptions of the place.  If you build a culture that doesn’t consider your employees’ well-being, it is highly likely to be a psychologically unsafe one. 

Like a tripod, culture has three legs. 

Structure: Reflecting the thoughts of another influence on Litwin’s and Stringer’s work, Robert Kahn considered organisations to be “a constellation of overlapping roles”.  Organisational design or structure has a considerable influence on Climate’s health. 

  • Is the organisation rigid and hierarchical or incredibly loose and fluid?
  • How does each role enable the role-holder to have Clarity about their personal contribution to realising the vision and purpose?  
  • Does each role description spell out how it touches the customer experience? 

I recall seeing the role profile for the “Patient Experience Director” at an NHS hospital. Apart from the title page and header to each page, the word patient didn’t appear until page 12.  What was that role achieving apart from consuming scarce financial resource? 

Whether it is the Chair of the Board, the CEO, a production-line team leader, a bench-lab scientist, a team of coders, receptionist, or security guard, if you can’t define the purpose of the role as a Tweet (original length not current verbose tolerance), does that role deserve to exist? 

Do roles overlap (as per Kahn’s suggestion) or are there gaps between them?  I prefer to think of role structures as a 1970s disco dance floor marked out in discrete squares, although I appreciate that appears very set in its place.  However, remember each square is a different colour and lights up with varying frequency according to the song being “spun”.  This is analogous to a contemporary, agile organisation where roles appear then “switch off” according to activities being underway.  Role-holders can jump from one lit-up role to the next and, perhaps, back again. 

The dance floor doesn’t need to be contiguous in one place.  It can stretch virtually to support the modern vogues of working from home and the gig economy, although it becomes congested with too many Deliveroo bikes occupying the squares! 

Consider this short segue from the movie The Full Monty, https://youtu.be/bNdq_fUDyKo.  Do you know your structural offside trap?

Alternatively, Stayin’ alive, The Bee Gees, John Travolta

Processes: How does the organisation function, preferably as an organism not a robotic machine?  How efficient and effective are the core processes concerning planning, communication, capability, and performance?  Efficiency ties into the current attention productivity is receiving, i.e., how to do more with less?  Yet if employees write more flawed lines of code, effectiveness is lousy.  This causes the cost of re-work to spike. 

The 1990s Quality / Business Excellence mantras of “Do it right, first time, every time”, or “Once and done” remain valid.  The root of these lie in William Edwards Deming’s work in Japan during the 1950s.  When the eye comes off the excellence ball, it is starkly apparent. It compels firms such as Toyota to recall millions of vehicles at enormous cost.  For its Japanese leaders, they must bow lowly in contrite apology.  How wonderful it would be to see the leaders of our house building firms show such contrition rather than contempt and avarice over the cladding scandal, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ea337830-1d24-11ec-9699-f7cb5224a0e1?shareToken=8ac5e4c55a497f5713525e61d6481873. Hopefully, one day they will be “brought to book” for their fraudulent and lethal actions.

What is the connective tissue between the corporate plan and individuals’ capabilities?  How much effort does talent management and succession planning receive?  Prior to his death, Arie De Geus advocates leaders’ devote 20% of their time to cultivating the capabilities of their employees.  How much of your time do you spend developing your people (including yourself)? 

What drives capable people out the door is allocating too much attention to sorting out the consequences of mistakes caused by under-skilling.  Shakespeare’s remark about, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark…” holds true when leaders short-change development as a reduceable cost rather than regarding it as a value adding investment. 

Behaviour: the pivot on which Climate most markedly swings is leaders’ behaviour; it sets the tone of any workplace.  Aggression, hostility, distrust, prevarication, wariness, amicability all sow clone-like behavioural responses.  A sense of purposeful direction rather than passivity coupled with a tough-love compassion towards others instead of indifference or ambivalence reproduces itself genetically in others’ behaviour. 

Leaders serve their employees; as Simon Sinek says, “Leaders eat last.”  Robert Greenleaf christened this servant-leadership, the term I use is Blue 4 behaviour.  Blue 4 is very much a molecular view of behaviour.  Its constituent elements are: 

Being Directive comprises:

Directional – having both long-term perspective and focus on what needs doing now to keep things on the intended track.  An example is the side-bar anecdote about Walgreens in Jim Collins’ seminal HBR article about Level 5 Leadership, “… the six months deadline was set six weeks ago, we now have four-and-a-half months…”

Positional – people operate at the right level in the right position by delegating adroitly and effectively.  There is no aloofness, however.  Their hands are first on the pump when summoning “all hands to deck”.

Constructive – there is open, candid discussion about all issues, especially the respect or disregard shown to values.  There is no room for a “cancel culture” that suffocates discussion of important and sensitive issues.  It is vital, however, that tolerance of different views exists and people convey them in a way that wins respect if not agreement.

Being Compassionate comprises:

Engaging – great leaders inspire so that individuals self-motivate themselves to go the extra mile without causing harm to their mental well-being.  Inspirational behaviour can be both positive and negative as any Ponzi scheme will attest.  Also, as Nitesh Gor points out in The Dharma of Capitalism, passion also has two Janusian faces, its bleaker side being impetuosity and greed. 

Democratic – there are few organisations that are genuinely democratic in allowing the employees to vote in their leaders.  The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is one.  The debate about employee-representation on Boards speaks to a more democratic approach, although this didn’t stop Dieselgate at VW.  At very least, leaders need to involve employees in the broadest extent of decision-making.  This more participatory approach builds trust (see illustration below), which binds together Climate’s dimensions into a cohesive whole.

From Tweet by John Cutler, @johncutlefish

As the denominator becomes more about an individual’s needs and expectations, so the Trust quotient declines. Selfless leadership enhances Trust far more than does self-centred leadership. This article https://www.inc.com/marcel-schwantes/8-signs-to-immediately-recognize-someone-with-gift-of-true-leadership.html?s=09 includes a neat acronym for selfless.

Developmental – expending immense effort on raising current performance capabilities as well as preparing employees to have the skills and behavioural competences the future will require.  Leaders who allow their workforce to become stale will quickly find their firm losing its competitiveness.  The earlier comment concerning Arie de Geus is again relevant. Leaders are accountable for growing the capability of their employees, it is part of their stewardship of resources role. Individuals own responsibility for their actions, particularly their self-development. 

These elemental leadership approaches comprise smaller, measurable components. These “atomic” component behavioural competencies include Strategic Thinking, Interpersonal Awareness, Critical Information Seeking, and Self-development.  Project management and negotiation are not behaviours; they do, however, demand a cocktail of behavioural prowess.

Reading and watching all the contemporary material I have of late, while I accept language is a living dynamic, considerable confusion arises from using words at odds with their original tenor.  Being strategic is not doing next year’s budget.  Being extravert is not solely about being socially gregarious.  Major consultancies introduce “new” words to supplant an existing lexicon, often one they introduced some years earlier, e.g., “vulnerability” for self-esteem, “grit” for resilience or tenacity.  Daubing fresh paint on old wood doesn’t cure the rot.

Yes, some words deserve being consigning to the dustbin of history. However, I’d argue against airbrushing away the underlying, factual history.  This needs to remain in the foreground of our awareness, otherwise we risk falling back into far less inclusive, intolerant ways. I like this from architect Frank Gehry:

Frank Gehry

Leadership behaviours continuously and consistently affect the health of Climate.  Delivering the positive behaviours listed above one day in five won’t boost Climate.  Exhibiting behavioural competence is a 24/7 demand on everyone in the organisation.  For instance, Constructive behaviour must be visible as a two-way flow.  If as a leader you ignore your firm’s values and someone points this out to you, they’re right, you’re not.  Returning to Jim Collins’ Level 5 Leadership, the leader needs humility to accept the gift of this feedback. 

Call a doctor, my Climate isn’t well!

A healthy Climate is the flywheel of persistent, stronger performance across a balanced scorecard of metrics or the easier to grasp “triple bottom line”.  Focusing improvement initiatives on creating, nurturing, and sustaining a healthy Climate will pay dividends in so many ways.  Prioritisation is essential.  What will have most impact quickest and not turn out to be a flash in the pan?  Managing Climate should not be a sporadic series of diets. 

The quality of Climate and Culture is measurable to a fine level of detail.  Knowing how the different cultural factors drive Climate permits creation of this series of matrices.  These relationships are not just correlations but causalities.  A RAG review enables ready and immediate identification of what should to do first.  Here are some examples. 

Climate and structure matrix
Climate and processes matrix
Climate and behavioural matrix
Matrix key

The threshold that triggers concerns is variable.  If these examples are based on a 50% score being acceptable, adopting a higher threshold, e.g., 75%, would result in far more red cells indicating that cultural factors had already toxified Climate. 

I recommend generating a first set of reports at a“softer” threshold. This produces a more manageable number of reds and ambers, so it is easier to prioritise and coordinate activities. Trying to do everything at once is a recipe for disaster. As you complete improvement initiatives re-run the reports at higher thresholds. This helps instil a sense of continuous improvement and striving for excellence. 

The data is captured through a 360⁰ survey process which, admittedly, is not a trivial exercise.  It is time consuming and, therefore, carries a significant opportunity cost.  Allowing old habits to creep back in a squanders that investment. To this end, it is vital to understand the inter-relationships between the different cultural drivers. Without doing so, simply completing one activity and starting another is akin to squeezing a balloon in different places. Each squeeze sees it bulge elsewhere. In organisations, structural silos exacerbate this issue. Understanding the firm’s value chain is essential. Saving £5 in one area and seeing costs increase by £10 elsewhere is the quickest road to the insolvency courts.

Mutuality of health – global and organisational Climate

Organisations with healthy Climates are far better positioned to rise to the challenges posed by global climate change.  A collegiate Clarity about not causing further harm to the planet’s ecosystem will stimulate fresh, innovative thinking and a positive attitude that makes real Einstein’s statement about involving different people in solving the problems caused by others.  Movements such as Northern Power Women, https://www.northernpowerwomen.com/, and QS World Merit, https://www.qs.com/qs-world-merit-charity/, are bringing many fresh, creative minds to impel the pace of change we need to see.

Hopefully, this will create a virtuous vortex or, as Schumpeter called them, gales of creative destruction.  Leaders who stick to their old ways will find themselves becalming their organisations in the eye of the global climate storm. Their best talent will walk to organisations that demonstrate they have fit and healthy metabolisms .  It is highly likey that we shall witness more instances of organisations undergoing the scale of change that saw Nokia move from producing wellington boots to manufacturing telecommunications equipment. Rigidity in the face of these tempests will snap organisations.  Flexibility, adaptability and, agility, to adopt Sara Barrie’s, https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarabarrie/, drumbeat, will no longer be differential behaviours but entry-level ones. Without such competences, effective stewardship of an organisation’s resources, most notably its human and social capital, will not occur. 

I started by saying I had furled in my sails.  I believe it is now time for all of us to loosen the ropes and start to catch the growing instensity of the wind as it changes its direction. Bon voyage!

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