What do we mean when we say leaders need to provide meaning? Let me share an example through an anecdote by John Girard which points to this absolute at an individual level and its implication for leadership.
Is Your Team Building A Cathedral or Collecting a Cheque?
"On a foggy autumn day nearly 800 years ago a traveler happened upon a large group of workers adjacent to the River Avon. Despite being tardy for an important rendezvous curiosity convinced the traveler that he should inquire about their work. With a slight detour he moved toward the first of the three tradesmen and said “my dear fellow what is it that you are doing?” The man continued his work and grumbled, “I am cutting stones.” Realizing that the mason did not wish to engage in a conversation the traveler moved toward the second of the three and repeated the question. To the traveler delight this time the man stopped his work, ever so briefly, and stated that he was a stone cutter. He then added “I came to Salisbury from the north to work but as soon as I earn ten quid I will return home.” The traveler thanked the second mason, wished him a safe journey home and began to head to the third of the trio.
When he reached the third worker he once again asked the original question. This time the worker paused, glanced at the traveler until they made eye contact and then looked skyward drawing the traveler eyes upward. The third mason replied, “I am a mason and I am building a cathedral.” He continued, “I have journeyed many miles to be part of the team that is constructing this magnificent cathedral. I have spent many months away from my family and I miss them dearly. However, I know how important Salisbury Cathedral will be one day and I know how many people will find sanctuary and solace here. I know this because the Bishop once told me his vision for this great place. He described how people would come from all parts to worship here. He also told that the Cathedral would not be completed in our days but that the future depends on our hard work.” He paused and then said, “So I am prepared to be away from my family because I know it is the right thing to do. I hope that one day my son will continue in my footsteps and perhaps even his son if need be.”
Meaning is The Soil in Which Performance Blossoms!
In this example we immediately take note of the difference between the first worker who has no meaning for what they do beyond the immediate task at hand - cutting stones or the second who is there to earn a buck and we are drawn to the account of the third stone mason who demonstrates a grander vision that gives meaning to his work. This speaks to something that I believe resides in all of us. The idea that our lives have meaning not only in our personal lives and relationships but also in our work. This is crucial particularly when it comes to performance, after all which of the three would you hire?
Good Leaders Help Teams Discover Meaning
This worker was gifted with an understanding of the meaning of his work but where did he get that meaning? The Bishop. Not all of us will immediately see the meaning to the work we do so it is something that good leaders must provide for their team or group. We have an innate need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Some in leadership will create the connection between the work and a greater good - for example Starbucks does not "just" sell coffee, they provide a social experience; a place for people to gather. Some companies tie the work with philanthropy by directing some of the profits and/or providing time for staff to volunteer toward causes of their choosing such as "Habitat for Humanity" or the "United Way."
As leaders we do this because we value our people. You communicate worth when you take the time to create meaning in the work being done.
You will find that it helps to have your own meaning for what you do sorted out as well. For example, I do what I do because I believe that leadership though fraught with all manner of pitfalls and opportunities for failure can be an amazing experience that need not be terrifying or mundane. That leadership can be bigger than us and can be enjoyed and the more we enjoy it the more those we lead and work with will benefit.
Have you created meaning for your leadership, for your team? If not, why not? Performance Leadership - Think About It!
Okay, I confess that I am a secret Star Trek fan and maybe I was looking for a way to insert my guilty pleasure into our discussion on leadership. I think you will find though, that this is a good fit for this topic.
A Crucial Business Advantage
Perhaps the number one characteristic of good leaders is that they produce other good leaders – they multiply. To quote Tom Peters, author of “In Search of Excellence” - “Leaders don’t create followers; they create more leaders.” In today's competitive market this is a crucial advantage for businesses.
“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Steve Jobs
The reason for this revolves around the practice and concepts of continuous improvement. One of the foundational concepts of continuous improvement is the need for innovation. Not just innovation but a constant flow of innovation. How does this relate to leadership? Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, sums it up this way; “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” As leaders we can develop followers who will be very good at following and will for all intent and purpose do what they are supposed to do. But great leaders develop other leaders who will not only do what they are supposed to do but constantly be on the lookout for ways to innovate and improve.
Followers React - Leaders Anticipate
Why is this important? Followers react, leaders anticipate. In today's market that may well be the difference between surviving and bankruptcy. When you develop a team to be leaders in their own right you create a group who are able to anticipate and innovate rather than react. We understand that reacting places you at a disadvantage because it confirms you are already one step behind.
Creating Leaders on Your Team is Counterintuitive
I won’t kid you, this is hard! For most of us this seems counter-intuitive. It means you have to look for people who are smarter than you and then invest in them for success. The hard part is overcoming the fear that in doing this you put your position at risk. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. In researching the top reasons for leadership failure some of the prominent reasons were as follows; Leaders become selfish or greedy, they become reactive, they stop developing the team members. You will note that nowhere in this list is the idea that they developed people who took their jobs. In fact, it is just the opposite, failure to develop or multiply the leadership in your team is a leading cause of failure!
How then does this relate to the Borg? In the Star Trek series, the Borg was an alien race that operated from a collective base of knowledge that they grew by assimilating other cultures. Fashioned like a giant matrix each member had access to that knowledge base and as such they were able to react and learn from threats quite quickly which made them almost unbeatable. (Know any companies like that?)
Why the Borg Can't Win
Yet for all their knowledge they lacked a key advantage; innovation. The Borg had access to knowledge and could respond quickly which initially gave them the upper hand. Yet their weakness was in the fact that they could not anticipate or innovate. They did not have leaders they had followers and that initial advantage in terms of knowledge and speed of reaction could not overcome the group that could anticipate and innovate.
Great leaders multiply leadership in and through their team. In so doing they grow and develop teams who can anticipate and innovate which I submit is THE biggest advantage a business can have over its competitors. It is also a key feature of continuous improvement and the reason the Borg will never win. Work to develop the leaders on your team and in case I forget, in the words of Spock, “live long and prosper!” Performance Leadership - Think About It!
You Are Getting The Culture And Productivity You Reinforce.
The behavior of individuals on a team or staff is one of the most interesting areas of leadership study. It is also probably one of the most uncomfortable. When I meet with leaders often one of the first issues of discussion will revolve around either performance or culture and usually both as they are intimately entwined. When I tell senior leadership that they are getting exactly the culture and productivity they are reinforcing it almost always elicits an "...oh ya?" response.
Of course no leader sets out to reinforce low productivity or a negative culture yet often that is exactly what happens. Getting into that bind usually happened over a long period of time and getting out of it will take some time as well but the good news is that there is a solution.
Law of Unintended Consequences
In the simplest terms we inadvertently reinforce low productivity or poor culture based on a series of responses (or non-responses) to perceived behaviors. In one company it was an unspoken rule that when someone got their work done early that they got to sweep and clean the shop. The intent had been to ensure everyone was seen as being busy during the shift but as I am sure some of you realize it also had the effect of ensuring no one finished early and the net result was low productivity.
That is an easy example but there are literally hundreds of interactions that leaders have throughout a typical day that have the net effect of reinforcing or ignoring (what we call extinguishing) behaviors. A crew needs to meet a deadline but doesn't make it and as such need to stay late to complete the task and collect overtime pay in the process. An employee comes into your office to complain about something or someone and in the interest of getting them out of your office you promise that you will look into it. You notice one of your staff not wearing the proper safety equipment and make a note to talk with them about it but get busy with your daily responsibilities and forget all about it. In a staff meeting input is sought but when a new employee offers some they are belittled by the supervisor. And you wonder why one crew seems to lag behind the others, why that person seems to "always" be in your office, why safety events are on the rise or why staff are not engaged and no one is willing to come up with new ideas?
Admit You Are The Problem And You Can Solve It
If the path to the kind of productivity or culture you have is made up of all of these types of decisions and actions then the first step in turning this around is in recognizing that this is indeed happening. The second step is to decide on what behaviors you want. This may seem obvious but our environments have actually taught us to look for those things we don't want. To test this ask yourself have you ever told your parents or had your kids ask you "can you name one thing that I have done right in my life?" If that left you a tad uncomfortable don't worry you are in good company.
You need to be intentional, identify the behaviors you want and start to reinforce those behaviors. This is hard at first but once you start to identify those behaviors you will be surprised at how fast things fall into place and I suspect you will be surprised at the staff you start to interact with and who you never noticed before.
Next time you take a look around the office or walk out on the production floor or have staff meeting ask yourself what kinds of things am I reinforcing? Like the answer - great! Don't like the answer - time to make a change. Performance Leadership - Think About It!
A Tested Principle
This is not a new principle and it has been around since the 17th century when writers such as Locke and Rousseau began to explore the relationship of the individual to authority. They examined how people would cede certain individual liberties to a governing authority in exchange for that authority providing certain things in return like the enshrinement of rights and the provision of a level of order. They called it a social contract which was either explicit (a constitution) or implicit and the understanding was that one exercised authority only at the consent of those being governed.
It's About Influence
While this is admittedly a political concept the fact is that it can be applied to leadership in general. Its application can range from informal settings such as a group of friends to more formal settings like teams and certainly to business. And it is a leadership absolute.
What are the components of this absolute and how does this impact you as a leader? First and most importantly it is based on the premise that those you lead have value. Value not only in terms of what they bring to the group or business but value in terms of who they are as individuals and what that means. What are some of the features that make up the value of the individual?
Staff Are Not A Commodity
People are more than the sum of their resumes. You hire someone for certain skills which of course is the point. They come though with far more than those skills. They come with a desire to learn, to grow, to contribute, to be recognized, to be provided with direction and feedback that is timely and as people who are wired for community they desire to have that community acknowledge their value beyond their skills to the whole person that comes with that package. In short our people are not commodities or assets to be used and then discarded.
Where is Your Team?
The social contract subscribes to two principles; people have an inherent worth that must be respected and those in authority act as trustees of that worth and lead accordingly. In a political setting when that social contract is violated sufficiently those who are governed rise up and replace that government. In business when this happens they leave. They leave in one of two ways; literally or they just check out emotionally and productively. Either scenario is costly.
We Are Starting To Get The Picture
The expression of this social contract in business can be seen with good leaders igniting staff to new levels of engagement and productivity or bad leaders driving truly good people out. People have figured this out and now companies rate leadership on things like employee retention or satisfaction. Of course that is only one measure but folks are getting the message.
Think about it this way, you may get promoted into a position of leadership and have the ability to exercise whatever authority comes with that but you will never truly lead unless you have at least the implicit consent and support of those under you. We all know that those who treat staff poorly can get away with it for a time but sooner or later it will catch up to them either in poor productivity or high turnover. Remember you lead by social contract - do right by your team and they will do right by you. Performance Leadership - Think About It!
Philosophy is About How it Gets Done
If vision is about what you are going to accomplish then philosophy is about how that will look and how it will be done. All of us will apply a leadership philosophy of some sort but few of us will do so knowingly or with intent.
Intentional vs Accidental
That is not to say it won’t happen but rather that it happens by accident and often haphazardly. Leadership philosophies are prone to trends like many other things in the realm of social interaction and most leaders (70% according to Gallup) report they develop an approach through trial and error.
What this means is that if you manage to get through the first year of your leadership role you just may survive. But there are costs; talented and high performing operators get thrust into front line leadership roles and struggle with the new skills and many fail. That failure is not just theirs alone as well over 60% of workers cite poor leadership as the chief reason for leaving a company. So we not only lose a good potential leader we lose staff. For example, an average sized company of say 150 employees with an 11% turnover rate loses 16 people per year. Cost to replace each employee is conservatively around 50% of annual salary and let’s assume average salaries of around $50,000. What that means is that poor leadership at the front line costs this company around $412,000 per year!
Philosophy is Like a Compass - It Provides Direction
The good news is that companies are starting to realize that leadership development is not just good for the resume but is in fact an essential element of driving performance and competitiveness. So what role does philosophy play in good leadership? It should provide you with a few key points of direction – your focus, a timeline to achieve that focus, how your team contributes to the accomplishment of that focus, how you know that’s been achieved and how do you improve in the achievement of that focus?
Pick One, Anyone
I will tell you a secret, within that set of parameters there are literally dozens of approaches that can be taken, pick one and run with it! Any approach that you “knowingly” apply is far superior to no approach or what I call “accidental, run and gun leadership.” The research on this is pretty compelling in that a leader is 80% more likely to succeed through the application of a structured approach to achieving team or company goals. (Prosci)
In my experience leaders deal with this one of two ways; either they don’t have a defined philosophy or methodology in place or they overthink the one they have and keep changing it to adjust to the current crisis. The bottom line with a leadership philosophy is this, pick one that works for you, communicate it vigorously to your team and stick to it. This is one absolute of leadership you can literally take to the bank. Performance Leadership - Think About It!
This is going to be the first of a series of articles related to how leaders can explore potential absolutes around their role and anchor their leadership for the purpose of creating engagement, providing purpose and driving performance. I feel compelled to explore these issues as a result of the feedback I get from many in leadership that is centered around their struggle to create meaning for their teams. Many see this as due to the fact that we live in a pluralistic society that enshrines individual perspective and perception as paramount. While most have no issue with this concept they struggle with how to provide tangible, productive leadership from within that setting.
It hearkens to the old saying that often leadership is like trying to herd cats. In our current setting in North America and Europe our pluralism often leads to relativism and it is this relativism that is at the root of the angst I find among leaders today. One may subscribe to these principles on a personal level but as a leader you are immediately confronted by myriad of voices each attesting to their own reality or validity. Many leaders share that they see themselves walking the proverbial "plank" on a pirate ship where one false step or failure to be inclusive puts you in the drink. It is worth noting that most leaders care about giving an ear to all these voices but good intentions don't necessarily address the reality that trying to create a mechanism for other perspectives rarely translates into a unified business approach. And we are back to the cats - lol!
Any engineer will tell you that there are principles that cannot be violated. So too in the realm of leadership, business and wealth creation there are some principles that can be applied. Over the next few blogs I am going to suggest a few principles so lets see where the conversation takes us.
What is Your Vision?
First and foremost effective leadership involves vision. You either became a leader because of a vision or you brang vision to a leadership role you were tagged to perform. Steve Jobs or Bill Gates would be an example of the first as their respective visions for computing thrust them into leadership. Sue would be an example of the second.
Never heard of Sue? That's because Sue, like most of us, moved into leadership and needed to bring a vision for that role. She wanted to do a great job and she wanted to have a high performing team. Soon into the role however she noticed that this new crew did or didn't do certain things the way that she felt comfortable with. They were a good group but Sue unknowingly had an approach that was different from the team. They were doing okay but because of these issues she was not enjoying her new role.
She approached me one day on the horns of this dilemma. She reasoned that because she had a good team and because she was uncomfortable with their approach to things that she must be lacking as a leader. As she shared these fears with me her pain and struggle with this was very evident. "I am having a hard time controlling my temper and I am starting to belittle some of the guys" she confided. The reason was her growing frustration with some of these behaviours and processes that she did not agree with.
Its Okay to Set Your Own Course
After letting her share her thoughts I asked her why she just didn't sit the team down at the start of the shift and let them know how she wanted things done? "I can do that?" she said. "Of course you can" I responded. The relief was palpable. I told her that just because she inherited this team did not mean that she could not bring her own vision and leadership to the group. Her group would be a reflection of her leadership not the previous leader.
When I met her a couple of days later she was all smiles and life was good. She had learned that first principle; you are the leader - bring your vision and pursue it. For those of us who have been there nothing is more disheartening than failing while in the pursuit of trying to please everyone else and not staying true to our vision. The problem is how many get promoted who have not been mentored with regard to developing their own vision for leadership? Come to think of it; what is your vision for leadership? Performance Leadership - Think About It!
As a leader you have established coherence and are doing a good job of interpreting the company to your staff. You have established a climate that is safe and incubates innovation and growth. You have allowed staff to set challenges to meet with regard to team and company goals. At this point your team truly has been transformed. They are clear about what is expected of them, they are collaborating and looking for new ways to improve performance and people are really pumped about the work. So what is left?
Acknowledge and Celebrate!
The last step to creating a permanence for your continuous improvement culture is to create an expectation that this work is going to be acknowledged and each victory is an opportunity for celebration. Sounds easy enough but the majority of change initiatives that fail will often fail around this principle. How many times have you seen processes or methods implemented only to note months later that things have gone back to the way they were before?
Like breathing, celebration should be organic and not contrived. I suspect that this is where most of us tend to overthink things and in making celebration too onerous we eventually fall out of the practice of it.
Look for the Daily Wins
In applying this approach you will have created an environment that is rich with things to celebrate. Every team member is tracking metrics and you have a clear idea of the behaviors you want to see happening on the team. Make it a daily practice to look for those things and celebrate them with your people.
This does not have to be complicated. In one company I worked with a supervisor created a schedule to review the team metrics being posted. He would walk out to the metrics board once a day and review the results and just leave his initials on the sheet. No big deal right? One day after I saw him do this I did an informal check with the team and asked them if they knew whether he had seen their results? To a person they said he had. I know each of them had not gone up to the board to check but so important was it to the team that when one person saw it they would tell the rest! It may not seem like folks are noticing but they are and for them that kind of acknowledgement was a celebration!
Spend Time with Your Team
If that seemed simple lets take it a step further. When you get out from behind your desk and take the time to simply go and see what your team are doing, its a celebration. This truth has been borne out by countless observations and if you have risen through the ranks you know this to be true - every person on a team can tell you which leadership spend time with the team and which don't. Sadly too often the perception is that the higher you go the less time you need to invest in the people who report to you.
Aim for the 90 percent - its a bigger target!
Our goal with this process is to reverse for leadership what I call the 90/10 principle. Most leaders will tell you that they spend 90% of their time dealing with 10% of their staff who are under performing. There are lots of reasons for that but most of them fall into the false belief that we must be doing something right if we are spending time working to fix these things. But stop and think about that for a moment. What is happening with the other 90% who are doing their job? Typically nothing. Continuous improvement shifts your focus as a leader from diving into the weeds with the 10% group to celebrating and driving performance with the 90% group. Where do you think you will see the greatest results?
Most importantly celebration is crucial to sustaining your team's performance because nothing kills performance quicker than lack of recognition. We think that because someone is doing a good job we can let that slide but nothing could be further from the truth. Don't wait to make celebration some thing big and cumbersome, a pat on the back, a word of thanks or even just asking how someone is doing can be a celebration. Don't wait, celebrate! Performance Leadership - Think About It!
In our first installment on this topic we discussed that we are all wired with a competitive nature and that nature can be harnessed for continuous improvement. As a leader your role is to direct that drive into something productive and not destructive through establishing coherence and a safe climate. When this is done effectively then getting staff to determine and track their own metrics (in alignment with the team and company goals) is the first step in creating sustainability in your continuous improvement efforts.
Using Those Metrics
The next step toward this sustainability is about using the information that your staff have been collecting. This really becomes a milestone in the process of establishing continuous improvement. While there may be many ways of achieving this I have found that the most successful approach can be broken into two pieces.
Build It Into Your Daily Schedule
First establish regular meetings with your staff or group around performance. If you are in operations that will most likely take the form or pre or post shift meetings that happen on a daily basis. If you are corporate it could be in the form of weekly or bi-weekly meetings. In each case time must be made for staff to report on performance in their area and discuss with peers overall group performance.
You Are Critical to this Process
I cannot overstate the crucial role you and your leaders will have in this process! The nature of these meetings must be focused on group goals and performance in a frank and non-judgmental spirit. Demeaning or negative comments directed at specific individuals must be avoided at all costs as your goal is to solidify that safe climate. Your access to this crucial information is very much incumbent on making sure it is safe for staff to share it.
You will need to be patient as this may seem awkward at first. I have timed some of these initial meetings where with a group of 20 operators it took them a grand total of one minute and forty seconds to cover all the areas of operations! Yet within very short order, with the patient guidance of their supervisor those meetings grew into very detailed 30 minute meetings that left everyone informed and ready to perform.
Opportunities - A Product of Metrics
As this sharing of information begins to take shape the second and equally important piece is the development of an opportunities list. Your group or team will begin to share information and often as one expresses frustration over one area another will have experience and knowledge to share with regard to possible solutions. I call it tribal knowledge - that collective wisdom that is dormant in the group and generally untapped.
A lot of this sharing of ideas will be informal but you will find as the group matures that more ideas will be generated for improving processes or performance and those need to go onto your opportunities list. This list will become a metric in its own right as you and your team move through addressing and exploring these ideas for improvement.
Getting to the Gold
This list and what you do with it is the "gold" that you have been carefully mining for and cultivating on your team. It is the heart of continuous improvement and each and every idea regardless of how small it may seem has an actual dollar value attached to it. This can be done in small groups or it can be done across entire companies. There is no limit to this approach with regard to scope as long as you and your leaders remember to provide coherence, a safe climate and a challenge to rise to. Performance Leadership - Think About It!
Lets review what we have explored in this discussion so far. A leader's role is to create Coherence, to provide meaning and context for their company. Arising out of that is Climate and creating a milieu of consistency and security for staff to function and to innovate. You will notice incredible changes on your staff by this point but now the work of "setting" this performance in place as a permanent feature of your company begins.
We are Wired for Challenge
You must create an expectation of meaningful challenge as the fist phase of making continuous improvement sustainable. We all want to do good work and we want to know where we stand with our peers, our boss and the competition. We are competitive creatures by nature. You don't have to look too far to see evidence of this. A good portion of our leisure time (and for some of us not so leisure - lol!) involves activities around either participating in or watching sports or games of some type. Have you ever gone out for an evening of bowling and not kept score? How about golf or hockey? Competitiveness is woven into the fabric of what makes us human.
Tapping into Challenge
As a leader you need to tap into that inclination to compete. Let me add a quick caution here before going on. You cannot skip coherence and climate and jump straight to challenge. Too many well meaning leaders have torn the fabric of their companies or groups to shreds with misguided competitions that actually inhibit performance rather than drive it. Once you have created the context for the team and ensured a safe climate to pursue innovation then you can look at challenge.
Where does that start? Honestly it starts with you but it is initiated with each and every staff member. What does that mean? By this point you should have a pretty good idea of what you need each of your staff doing to promote and achieve the goals of the group or company. The way you confirm that is to get them to set their own metrics for performance. Getting your staff to set their own metrics is important for several reasons. First it will confirm to you that everyone is on the same page and the metrics they are setting align with your goals or the company goals. If they aren't you get the opportunity to guide those staff through a "course adjustment" so that their metrics come into alignment with your goals and they will see how they fit.
Second and more importantly having staff develop their own metrics will allow you to tap into that natural competitive nature we all have. You can give them metrics to be sure but they will be "your" metrics and not theirs. Let them develop their own metrics (under your discrete guidance) and they will "own" them.
A Real Connection
Keep a couple of things in mind. Metrics should be simple, measurable and "connected" to achieving group or company goals and they must be personal. That is to say that each staff should be tracking their metrics but ensure they know they are competing against themselves and not others on the team.
When I have walked leaders through this I tell them to develop the habit of visiting staff daily and getting them to explain their metrics and how they are tracking them. I tell them to let the staff do the talking. When folks show their own metrics (and you have created the right climate) they will be eager to discuss their performance. In addition they are now driving their own performance and you only need to provide encouragement.
Organic vs "Pushing it"
It is important that this phase be allowed to grow organically. Don't push it but let staff become comfortable with their metrics and eventually without too much prompting they will start to talk with each other about it. That's when the magic will really start to happen.
We will take up that discussion in our second installment on creating an expectation of challenge. Performance Leadership - Think About It!
Climate - A Byproduct of Coherence
In this short piece lets explore a natural byproduct of coherence. That is climate. Climate is the milieu that a leader creates for their team or company. If you as a leader are successful at providing direction, interpreting the company to your team, providing context for where they fit in, how things get done and setting them free to explore how they can add value in their roles you have established the foundation for what kind of climate your team will operate within.
What solidifies that climate is the consistent application of those principles. That consistency creates a climate that is safe to function in and safe to innovate and take initiative. These are the key ingredients of engagement. A workforce that is confident in their understanding of the company and how they can help are more willing to take risks, generate ideas and "own" those ideas.
The Southwest Example
Herb Kelleher the founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines is a good example of this. As a leader he was able to provide coherence to his employees with clear messaging around the values of humor, independence and respect. He defined the company to them and spoke often of how they fit into it and through policy and application encouraged them to function independently and rewarded them for it. He believed that it created a workforce that was much more flexible and able to adapt quickly to the ever changing demands of the airline industry. In 1991 Midway Airlines went out of business on a Friday morning and by Friday afternoon Southwest staff had physically taken over every Midway gate at the Chicago Airport. He wasn't even consulted at first but was brought into the loop later. They wound up with all those gates and he was proud of the quick thinking and initiative that his group took.
Much as he is prone to give the credit to his employees make no mistake that without his efforts around coherence and the climate that he created this would never have happened. People don't take initiative when they don't feel safe to do so. There is an old axiom that so aptly applies to what happens when people don't feel safe to take initiative - "nobody moves - nobody gets hurt" and nothing gets accomplished.
How's the Climate on Your Team?
By the way there are no shortcuts to creating this type of climate. Consistent messaging and interpretation of the company to staff are the only way to create the type of security and frame of mind that fosters innovation. If your staff are unsure, tentative or unwilling to step out of their comfort zone you need to ask yourself what kind of messaging and therefore what kind of climate are you fostering? Performance Leadership - Think About It!
Over the next few articles we are going to explore four simple principles for performance that those leading teams, groups or companies can easily remember and apply. They are Coherence, Climate, Challenge and Celebrate. Let's start with the first principle Coherence, which is really the foundation for the others.
Coherence is an all encompassing word that covers a multitude of daily practices and activities. It is at once both broad and minute in its application. It is something that is crucial at every level of leadership and work. It could be confused as simply communication but it is so much more than this. It involves not only the transmission of purpose, task and outcome but it also provides for everyone in the group meaning and context for how things are done, why things are approached the way they are and how all things fit together. It provides perspective that the leadership and group have with respect to the value and role of its members.
Coherence by Example
Let me share a rather informal but good example of how leaders can provide coherence. I did some work with a oil and gas service company and spent time meeting with various folks getting an idea of the culture and goals of the company. What was truly fascinating was the number of stories retold to me about the founder and owner. People could relate to me why certain brands of trucks were bought over others because they were the first truck supplier to take a chance with the then new company. Who they used for tires, again a local manager of a tire company came out personally at two in the morning to change a tire on a large rig. And most of all they could tell you how much staff were valued by the owner. Folks would come to work in the morning and find this old guy working under a unit and chat with him only to find out later he owned the company. He would show up in the shop and work along side the crews and he told them they were valued. He would take great pains to speak with them about their salary and bonus policy and how it was structured to allow the company to keep as many working during downturns so that folks did not need to be laid off.
How did he provide coherence? First he provided by example the importance of loyalty and appreciation - remember the trucks and the tires? He communicated too the value he placed in his staff and provided policies that demonstrated that commitment. He provided an example for a way of doing things that they all emulated. To say that the company was a reflection of his attitude and approach would be an understatement.
Clarify the "Why"
We don't expect all leaders to provide this type of example but the principle nonetheless is valid. Starting with the Owner, President, CEO and right down to the front line leadership it is the leaders task to communicate why we exist, how we behave, how we do what we do, what success looks like, what is important right now and who does what. The top leadership team should be absolutely clear about the answers to those issues and they in turn provide answers to their direct reports and ensure that information is passed down the line accurately and clearly. When that is done well there should be no confusion around expectation, goals and outcomes.
Why is this important? Two different companies, two identical operations positions and two very different approaches. In the one company the operator has no clue about those issues or an understanding of the answers and how they fit into the big picture. They do their part of the work, collect a paycheck and have minimal investment in the company. The second company operator has had these things communicated to them. They understand the overarching direction and approach and their role in it. They don't just see themselves as a small cog in a big machine they see themselves as a part of team whose goal is to outclass the competition. They can tell you how much downtime hurts the company and they are constantly looking to add to their opportunities list for how to improve their part of the company. One operator has coherence with their company and the other doesn't.
You Interpret the Company to Your Team
As a leader at any level there is an expectation that you provide coherence. You interpret the company to your team, you provide the context for how what they do is important, and you set them free to pursue adding value to the group and company. After-all everyone wants to be part of a winning team. Performance Leadership - Think About It!
Renewed Interest in Continuous Improvement
Lately I have found a common thread in my discussions with leaders here in Calgary. With a lull in the market there is a focus on taking this time to look at developing a culture of continuous improvement. The rationale is valid - take time now to develop this culture so that when things pick back up we will be ready to move forward.
There are legitimate and strong reasons for wanting to move in this direction and they are not all just based on saving a buck. The reality is that we are undergoing a seismic shift in the work force with "boomers" moving into retirement which is creating challenges in a number of ways.
First there is a demographic gap in that the groups following after the boomers are smaller in size. There are fewer of them to go around and so companies are now determining how they can run effectively with less.
Second the groups moving up into leadership are for the most part entering these roles with less experience. That is not to say that they lack desire but surveys of these various sub groups (X'ers, Next'ers, and Millennials) consistently show them clearly concerned about their lack of leadership experience and skill.
For those looking in from the outside these moves to redefine their culture might look like austerity measures to deal with the slow down and no doubt for some that is all this is. But for those I speak with it goes far beyond austerity to something I will call simplicity. Often austerity and simplicity find connection because when companies implement aggressive austerity measures it typically tends to bring a level of simplicity. The need to cut costs results in levels of complexity being removed and for the moment at least things become simpler. The difference between the two lay in their longevity.
Austerity eventually fades away as things pick up and profits start rolling in. In these parts the evidence of that can be found with those now famous bumper stickers that read "Please send another boom and I promise not to pee it all away like I did last time!" That really defines how many deal with austerity - tighten the belt now but only until things pick back up.
Short Term vs Long Term
Simplicity however is long term. The goal is to create a simpler approach and a culture of continuous improvement built on a foundation of innovation. Herein is the dilemma. Many of the methodologies and trends currently being used while effective and beneficial are not simple. There is a certain logical inconsistency when we introduce complex approaches to creating simpler company and operational cultures.
Not that we throw the baby out with the bathwater but we need to take a different approach in terms of how to implement the useful bits of Lean or Six Sigma or Agile or Total Quality and highlight them in meaningful ways with our leadership and operations. In short we need to simplify our approach to creating a culture of continuous improvement.
Build on the Core
The more complexity you throw at staff around continuous improvement the less likely they will be to adopt them. It becomes crucial then for companies to glean from their leadership just what pieces work and which ones don't. Build on your core strengths and grow from there. Like crossing a stream by placing one rock after another use what you have to start this process. Allow and expect more input from your staff around the issues that are meaningful to them and watch it transform your culture.
I suspect many of you are already wrestling with this issue. So my question is this; how are you creating simplicity as part of your drive to continuous improvement? Performance Leadership - Think About It!
This is the Oil Patch - S**t Happens
I remember discussing implementation of continuous improvement with a Frac crew a few years ago. When I started the discussion I was met with two distinct responses. The first was "I don't know how this will help, this is the oil patch - s**t happens!" The second was "I don't know if this will work, our bosses have never given us much of a say on things." The first response was really a reflection of the lack of understanding and training with regard to how much things could be improved. The second response was an expression of the idea that they would like to have input but had never had the chance to provide it and they were doubtful that was about to change.
This discussion is one that I have had many times, across many industries. This crew was not unique in terms of the conversation we were having. They had seen programs come and go and as with most staff in organizations they were looking to take their cue from their leaders. If they saw leadership embrace this then they were willing to at least try. The way I have seen this translate time and time again is the front line operations take their cues from their supervisors and the operations supervisors take their cue from area management and area management take their cue from corporate.
Keep the Message Simple and Constant
Here is where the challenge is most immediate. Messaging from corporate leadership has to be simple, focused and consistent. The more detailed or process intensive things are at the top the more likely that adoption will be limited. Think of it this way; with a new program every new step or process introduced from upper leadership is one more potential speed-bump to implementation. The messaging should be short and ought to be presented in the form of a question or two at each and every management and operations meeting. Are we doing .....? How do we know?
Everyone is Responsible for the Same Message
Your leaders from corporate right down to operations need to be on the same page with regard to this approach so that as continuous improvement starts to percolate on the team they will recognize it and encourage it. That is to say that everyone in the organization needs to be on board and be visibly not only showing support but demonstrating a level of understanding of the changes. Remember that while the "rubber meets the pavement" in operations everyone is taking cues from up the line. Because continuous improvement can and ought to be applied throughout a company every leader should be trained and conversant with how to apply it.
If You Are Not Looking For It, You Won't See It
How important is this? Lets return to my Frac crew from the start of this discussion. When I started with them they were achieving in the low 50% range for efficiency. (As measured by percentage of time pumping while in control of the well.) To be clear this was not low comparatively and by all accounts was the industry norm. By training front line leaders and crews in how to set their own metrics and establish their own opportunities lists and follow up on them they brought their efficiency into the high 80% range in under a year! Not only that but they started to have months where they would run weeks in a row with 100% efficiency and no down time. In its early stages this is a fragile thing and it does not take much to knock the wheels off it. If leadership up the line is not acknowledging and driving this kind of performance it won't take. The fastest killer of continuous improvement is to ignore the improvements!
I regularly witness a phenomenal sensitivity to the feedback or lack of feedback from leadership and a good word rightly used goes a long way in reinforcing a continuous improvement culture. That's why an effective and simple training program for leadership at all levels is vital to ensuring success for your continuous improvement implementation. Your leaders need to be equipped to understand and recognize the culture you are looking to implement and be able, as a team, to drive increased performance. As the saying goes; "Until you are all singing from the same song book, you are just making noise not music!" Performance Leadership - Think About It!
Eyes on You
It will come as a surprise to many of you who are in leadership but you have way more influence than you realize. Perhaps this may seem like a statement of the obvious but research has shown that leaders either don't realize the depth of influence they exert over their teams or they don't know how to use that influence to drive performance.
Influence vs Position
In your organization you can bring to mind those people who exert influence with their peers, with leadership and on their teams. We all know them, those "go to" people who seem to have a handle on pretty much everything and who are able to provide timely feedback or support when needed. They have a broad network of people they interact with and are seen by others as someone who adds value. Often you will find others going to them for advice either for how to handle a task or peer or for direction regarding career aspirations and so on.
In one company I know of there was one such person who exerted that kind of influence. They had built strong relationships with the company leadership by performing above expectations but also through consistent decisions that were always in the best interest of the company and that leadership group. They could be counted on to keep information in confidence. That approach was also applied with peers as well and most knew they could get sound advise and honest answers from that person. So what position did they hold? CEO? VP? Director? Manager? None of the above. This person was an office coordinator.
Circle of Influence
It should surprise us that this is the case but the reality is that we all have the capacity to develop that kind of circle of influence. While this type influence has nothing to do with position or title it is something that we can all develop and it can be particularly powerful when utilized from a position of leadership.
Position Buys Compliance - Influence Ensures Buy In
So why don't many leaders recognize how much influence they have or could have? It could be in part because we fall into the trap of believing that the "title" or position is sufficient. After all if I am leading a team they have to listen to me don't they? Yes, they have to comply. What we forget is that compliance is a minimum standard. Performance is something that goes beyond that minimum, tapping into what is called "discretionary effort." Maybe another way to put it is this; you can manage without influence but you cannot lead without it. Intrinsically we can all tell the difference between those two concepts. Thus we can find people without position or title who are leading and some who have position and title only managing or at the very least struggling to lead.
The best scenario is when one of those "influencers" moves into leadership but the good news is that each of us as leaders can learn to exercise our influence muscle. The first step is recognizing the necessity of doing so. Performance Leadership - Think About It!
Some Barriers to Involvement
One of the key areas around employee engagement and driving performance is the concept of allowing for employee involvement. I find it interesting that this issue often is a stumbling block for leaders at all levels in an organization. Often new leaders come into that role believing that they must "know it all" and thus allowing for employee involvement in those things that are part of their "jurisdiction" can be a threat. For leaders at a more senior level employee involvement can be too time consuming (I am too busy, just do what I say) or just plain messy. I have had a VP tell me once that he did not want high levels of employee involvement because it blurred the lines between all the various silos in the company. In other words it looked potentially messy.
All research points to the fact that each of us join organizations not just to earn a paycheck but to contribute, to be part of a team and be successful. How then do you as a leader allow for involvement with your group? Research done at the Ivy School of Business points to several factors that leaders can utilize and for our discussion we are going to look at two.
Power - who has it?
The first practice they point to is what they call "power." They define power to mean " that employees have the power to make decisions that are important to their performance and to the quality of their working lives." (Edward Lawler, IBJ) How frustrated have you been in those times when mandates came down to you that seemed at their core to make your ability to perform well harder? Or how many times have you seen decisions that seemed minor like taking the pop machine out of the lunch room or slight changes in scheduling become flash points because the staff impacted had no input or prior warning?
Power, as Lawler defines it goes a long way. One of my favorite research readings involved a study of two groups and performance in a noisy environment. Each group were given task in a control room with loud industrial noises pumped in. The first group had no ability to impact those noises and the second group had a button that they could push to turn off those noises. As you can guess the first group performed at a lower level than the second. What is interesting is that the second group performed at higher levels but rarely or never actually pushed the button! As members explained later in the debriefing it was just sufficient to know that if they wanted to they could control that particular part of their work.
Knowledge - how do you build it?
The second practice is identified as knowledge. They define knowledge as "a commitment to training and development." High engagement companies recognize that if they are going to have employees making decisions they need to equip them with the skills to be able to do this well. This training can be informal front line coaching or more formal organizational approaches that really are about culture and change. In either case the goal is to structure involvement in order to maximize labor potential in creating production or cost savings.
This is an effective approach and is utilized in Kaizen methodology in terms of the idea that producing big results comes from many small changes accumulated over time. Where do those small changes come from? The involvement of employees in the process and work that impacts them. Give them power over those things that impact their performance and train them how to approach these issues and make good decisions. Watch then what happens to their engagement and performance! Performance Leadership - Think About It!