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.
Three Workers - Three Stories
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's 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 us 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.”
Who Would You Want?
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, which is cutting stones, or the second, who is there to earn a buck, and we are drawn to the account of the third stonemason who demonstrates a grander vision that gives meaning to his work. This speaks to something that I believe resides in all of us 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?
You Can Create 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 of the work we do, so it is something those 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 the 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 figured 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 larger 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 and for your team? If not, why not? Hu centered leadership, think about it.
Hu Centered Leadership - Leadership Absolute #5 - Great leaders multiply or why the Borg will never win!
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 that this is a good fit for this topic.
Good Leaders Make Good Leaders
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.
Looking To Improve
The reason for this revolves around the concepts and practice of continuous improvement. One of those concepts is the need for innovation. Not just some innovation, but a constant flow of innovation. How does this relate to leadership? Steve Jobs, the 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, do what they are supposed to do. Great leaders develop other leaders. These, in turn, not only do what they are supposed to do but always are on the lookout for ways to innovate and improve.
Followers React - Leaders Anticipate
Why is this important? Simply this; followers react, leaders anticipate. In a competitive 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 that can anticipate and innovate rather than reacts. It is necessary to understand that reacting places you at a disadvantage because it confirms you are already one step behind.
Failure To Develop Leaders Is Costly
I will not kid you it's hard! For most of us, this seems counter-intuitive. It means you look for people who are smarter than you and then invest in their 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. The top reasons for leadership failure are as follows - leaders become selfish or greedy, they become reactive, and they stop developing their team. Note that nowhere in this list is the idea that they developed people who took their jobs. It is just the opposite where failure to develop the leaders on your team is a leading cause of failure!
Leaders vs Followers: A Competitive Differentiator
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. 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?)
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 but 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. By doing so, they grow and develop teams who can anticipate and innovate, which I submit is THE most potent 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 in your team, and in case I forget, in the words of Spock, live long and prosper! Hu centered leadership - think about it.
The behavior of individuals on a team is one of the most fascinating 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 the culture and productivity they are reinforcing, it almost always elicits an "...oh ya?" response.
Of Course I Want Poor Performance - Said No One Ever!
Of course, no leader sets out to reinforce low productivity or negative culture, yet often that is what happens. Getting into that bind usually happened over a long period, and getting out of it will take some time, as well, but the good news is that there is a solution.
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, there was an unspoken rule - when someone got their work done early - they got to sweep and clean the shop. The intent had been to ensure everyone was seen as busy during the shift, but as I am sure some of you realize, it also had the effect of guaranteeing no one finished early, and the net result was low productivity.
Daily Reinforcement But What Kind?
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 they 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 so you can get back to work, 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, feedback 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?
What Do You Want?
The path to the productivity or culture you currently have is made up of many of these types of decisions. 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 begin 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, walk out on the production floor, or have a 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. Hu centered leadership, think about it.
The idea of the social compact is not a new concept. It has been around since the 17th century. Writers such as Locke and Rousseau began to explore the relationship of the individual to those in authority. They examined how an individual would cede certain individual liberties to a governing authority in exchange for that authority providing certain things like the enshrinement of those 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.
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. Your team has value because of what skills they bring to the business, and also because of who they are as individuals. What are some of the features that make up the value of the individual?
A Complete Package
People are more than the sum of their resumes. You hire someone for specific skills, which of course is the point, yet they come to you 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, and as humans wired for community, they desire to have that community acknowledge their value beyond their skills as a whole person that comes with that package. In short, our people are not commodities or assets to be used and then discarded.
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 contract is violated, 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.
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 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.
Engage the Whole Individual
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 really 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 low productivity or high turnover. Remember you lead by social contract - do right by them, and they will do right by you. Hu centered leadership, think about it!
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.
That is not to say it won’t happen but 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.
Whats the Cost?
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 skill sets, 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 150 employees with an 11% turnover rate loses 16 people per year. The cost to replace each employee is conservatively around 50% of their annual salary. Let’s assume average wages of around $50,000. What that means is that poor leadership at the front line costs this company around $412,000 per year!
What Does This Look Like?
The good news is that companies are starting to realize that leadership development is not just about looking 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. Those points include:
- a focus
- a timeline to achieve that focus
- how your team contributes to the accomplishment of that focus
- and how you know that’s been achieved.
Lastly, it includes how do you improve in the achievement of that focus?
Pick One And Stick With It.
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 action that you “knowingly” apply is far superior to doing nothing, 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. Hu centered leadership - think about it!
This is going to be the first of a series of articles related to how leaders can explore Hu (human) principles around their role and anchor their leadership to create engagement, provide purpose, and foster performance. I feel led to explore these issues because of the feedback I have received from many who lead. This is centered around their struggle to create meaning and unity for their teams. Many see this because 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 a team setting.
It hearkens to the old saying that 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 a 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 room for other perspectives rarely translates into a unified business approach. And we are back to the cats - lol!
Are There Leadership Absolutes?
Any engineer will tell you that there are absolutes that cannot be violated. So in the realm of leadership, business, and wealth creation, are there some absolutes that can be applied? Over the next few blogs, I am going to suggest a few absolutes, and let's see where the conversation takes us.
First and foremost, effective leadership involves vision. You either have a passion for something and become a leader because of it or, you bring your vision to the role you have been tagged to perform. Steve Jobs or Bill Gates would be an example of the first as their respective vision 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. Early 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 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 things that she wasn't comfortable with.
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 should be a reflection of her leadership, not the previous leader.
You Did It Your Way
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 implement it. For those of us who have been there, nothing is more disheartening than failing while in the pursuit of pleasing everyone else and not staying true to our vision. The reality is that many get promoted who have not been mentored concerning developing their own vision for leadership. Come to think of it; what is your vision for leadership? Hu centered leadership - think about it.
I remember discussing applying Hu centered organizational effectiveness 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 concerning 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 before, and they were doubtful that would change.
Been there, done that
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 takes their cue from corporate.
Keeping it simple
Here is where the challenge is almost immediate. Messaging from corporate leadership has to be simple, focused, and consistent. The more detailed 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 be presented in the form of a question or two, at each management and operations meeting. Are we doing ..... well? How do we know?
Everyone owns it
Your leaders from corporate right down to operations need to be on the same page about the approach so that as your new organizational effectiveness culture starts to percolate, they will recognize it and encourage it. That is to say that everyone in the organization needs to be on board and be visible. Not only showing support but demonstrating a level of understanding. Remember that while the rubber meets the pavement in operations, everyone is taking cues from up the line. Because organizational effectiveness can and ought to be applied throughout a company, every leader should be trained and conversant with how to use it.
Back to our Frac crew
How important is this? Let's 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 the percentage of time pumping while in control of the well.) To be clear, this was not low and, by all accounts, was the industry norm. By training front-line leaders and crews in how to set their own metrics, establish their own opportunities lists and follow up on them, they brought their efficiency into the low 90% 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 downtime. 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 wins.
Feedback is key
I witness high sensitivity to feedback or lack of it from leadership, and a positive word rightly used goes a long way in reinforcing a continuous improvement culture. This is why a simple training program for leadership at all levels is vital to ensuring the success of your efforts at organizational effectiveness. 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 songbook, you are not making music, just making noise!" Hu centered leadership - think about it.
Ever notice how we are all prone to fads? Whether it's clothes or music or beards (for those that can pull that off), we see fads come and go. The same is so for business and, in particular, leadership. There have been all kinds of trends, and they come and go, but what about the things that work? How do we know there wasn't something there, that when stripped down to its core, was really something that is a best practice behavior?
Metrics = Accountability?
Let's take the issue of metrics, for example. In my work in human-centered leadership and organizational effectiveness, metrics are core to those processes. Yet more often than not, we use our metrics as lagging indicators and never really explore how to use them as leading indicators that can drive performance improvement. Metrics, by their nature, are lagging indicators. They measure something that has happened. It could be the number of widgets made or the timeline for an order to be filled. In these cases, the effectiveness of the metric will depend on how much of a "lag" you allow for. For example, safety metrics that are reported quarterly or yearly will have a diminished effect on changing safety behaviors, whereas safety metrics discussed at daily shift meetings will have an immediate impact on safety behavior. Simply collecting metrics will not drive performance and will not promote organizational effectiveness. How fast you use and communicate them will. That is where accountability comes in.
Before I go into this concept in detail, let me be clear about what I mean when I refer to accountability. In the traditional sense, it was about who would be left "holding the bag" when something went sideways. Usually, it was some poor person in middle management, or if they were deft enough, it was foisted upon someone in operations. As the joke went, when something like that happened, you found the accountable person, and you "hung 'em high to teach them a lesson." That is the old application of accountability.
Free To Make Mistakes And Learn
When I refer to accountability, it is framed within the context of a work environment that allows for mistakes and uses them as stepping stones to improvement. It is centered around the idea that there is transparency in the process, and the goal is to identify issues and deal with them as quickly as possible. In this scenario, accountability is not punitive but transformative. We move from looking for someone to blame to looking for solutions to the issue that confronts us.
Every Link In The Service Chain
Let me use a quick example from the airline industry. Baggage handlers are an element of the industry, and many metrics can be employed in assessing performance. Total time to load, turn around time for transfers, dropped luggage, customer complaints, lost luggage, and so on. These are all useful metrics, and they are all lagging indicators. All the best dashboard reports in the world will not change that, but accountability will. When a manager or leader reports on a metric, guess who "owns" that metric? They do. When a baggage handler uses a metric like the number of drops, for example, who owns it? Again, the baggage handler.
Timing Is Everything
Here is where accountability can be used to take a lagging indicator like a metric around dropped bags and transform it into a leading indicator and a performance driver. If I require my baggage handlers to report to me every day on the number of bags they dropped during a load or unload, what behavior am I going to drive? You guessed it - they are going to focus on making sure they don't drop bags. Now I am using a metric to drive performance. How do you think that works if they only have to report this to me once a month? Once a week? Once per shift? Which do you think is going to be most effective? The closer to the activity you require the communication, the more impact it will have on behavior.
Metrics are useful, but they will never drive improvement or performance until they are hitched to personal accountability. Get your team to own the metrics, relate it to the larger goal of the department, and get them to track and report them. Then stand back and watch the transformation. Only then will you have the gas to drive performance. Hu centered leadership - think about it.