When will we learn, or, as Bob Dylan put it, “When will we ever learn?” That is the question I found myself pondering after reading two very different articles this week.
As a human being you cannot survive on your own. It doesn’t matter how capable or self-sufficient you consider yourself to be, it is practically impossible. Interdependence is an inescapable fact of life. If you are a manager or leader, you definitely depend on other people to achieve results. And, even if you aren’t, you are still likely to rely on other people to be able to get your job done. This makes managing relationships an essential life-skill.
John Donne encapsulated this when he said, “No man is an island, entire of itself: every man is a piece of the continent.” For most of us, this “continent” is the organisation where we work. This is significant because, if you are a “piece” of the organisation, it makes the organisation itself the ‘framework of relationships.’ This begs the question, “To what extent do you recognise this and regard your organisation as a ‘framework of relationships.’?
You couldn’t have made it up! In a world where the excesses of business have fuelled strong – sometimes violent – protests against capitalism and corporate malfeasance, Donald Trump won the US election because he was perceived as a businessman! Despite the onslaught of attacks on his personal character and his suitability for the role, he became the first man in history to become US President without any military or political experience whatsoever, because of his business credentials and the hope that this would enable him to bring about change.
This is like giving your most vociferous, disgruntled customer, who knows nothing about the ins and outs of your operations, control over your entire organisation, albeit on a far grander scale. You can imagine how concerned your other stakeholders would be if you were to do that. So it is hardly surprising that Trump’s election is causing consternation and creating a backlash. Inevitably people are taking stock of the implications and wondering how it is going to affect them.
Yet, in all the post-election reflection, there is one aspect that does not appear to have been considered in any great depth. And it is one that, perhaps, warrants the greatest thought: “What are the implications for business?” Without any doubt they are significant.
Less than 3% of leadership time is spent on collectively building a view of the future. At least, so said Gary Hamel and CK Prahalad in their book “Competing for the Future.” You might find some comfort in the fact that shocking statistic is over two decades old. But, even if things have improved subsequently, it is cause for concern.
Both the pace of change, and the fact that 70% of change initiatives, reportedly, fail to achieve their objectives, suggest that proportion should be significantly higher. This implies a need to take action to improve matters. Before identifying how to do that, however, you might ask, “Why, given the rate of change, do leaders not spend more time on this?” After all, safeguarding the future is surely a primary leadership responsibility.
It is encouraging to know that employee ownership is becoming increasingly popular and more widespread. According to Chief Executive Magazine the number of worker-owned businesses in the US is growing around 6% per year and such businesses now account for 12% of the private sector workforce. Apparently, this is due to initiatives “to empower their workforce employees by selling their stock to an ESOP or similar worker-owned arrangement” and/or “from founders wishing to reward employees while cashing out of their business.”
Yet, notwithstanding such developments, difficulties remain. The article identifies 2 major dilemmas:
- Private companies lack the public trading capability that listed companies use to motivate employees;
- Governance “challenges” if subsequent owners are unwilling to continue running the business.
Then, presumably as solutions to these dilemmas, the article offers two case studies. The first describes the transformation effected by a shared compensation system at Johnsonville Sausages; and the second reveals how, over 30 years, Burns and McDonnell, grew from 600 to 5,500 employees (816%) and increased revenues from $40 million to $2.6 billion (6400%) as the result of an ESOP (Employee Share Ownership Plan.) Then, despite this example of extraordinary growth that most organisations can only dream about, the article simply concludes by identifying the upside and downside of ESOPs. So let me add to the subject.
You could count all the words of Spanish I know on one hand, but “No Mas!” is a phrase I remember well (thanks to an historical boxing match last century.) But it took on a new relevance this past week.
This stemmed from a TED talk, “How to Save the World (or at Least Yourself) from Bad Meetings” in which David Grady coins the phrase “Mindless Acceptance Syndrome” or “MAS.” As you might expect from the talk title, he is referring here to an unthinking acceptance of attendance at meetings, something he definitely sees as needing to stop. If, like most people, your life is plagued by meetings, you will find it worth the less than 7 minutes investment of your time. For me, though, it had a deeper significance than just meetings.
There were two primary, ultimately inextricably linked, reasons for this.
Much as I would like to take credit for (what I think is) a catchy headline, it is actually inspired by an October 2016 Harvard Business Review article: “Why Leadership Training Fails – and What to Do About It.” The article justifies the phrase by saying that, globally, companies spent $356 billion on employee training and education in 2015 but are not getting a good return on their investment, as “learning doesn’t lead to better organizational performance, because people soon revert to their old way of doing things.” If you contributed to that global figure, I suspect you already know that!
Nevertheless, the “What to do about it” aspect makes the article worth reading. Beware, however, the “leadership training” focus. Its undoubted relevance to leaders ensures it inevitably applies to all organizational training. Any narrower focus, unfortunately, is limiting. As it is, I think it perhaps constrained the writers and led them to omit points that would increase the return on all training investment. Let me share some.
It often seems that people stand in the way of their own success. They get so focused on whatever they are trying to achieve that their thinking becomes habit, they fail to see, let alone consider, other options and their thought patterns and consequent behaviours become shackles. This inevitably limits outcomes and inhibits their own success. That is why there is more than a little validity to the old cliché, “You are your own worst enemy.” It takes an outsider to identify their issues, and even then they may not always change.
So perhaps, rather than a cliché, we should consider it as a statement of fact. Doing so immediately makes it universal and demands remedial action. Particularly if you recognise the implication that it also applies to any CEO or business leader! Then you are compelled to take a closer look at yourself and your role, and ask yourself, “How am I impeding my success and that of my organisation or team?”
Opening yourself up to this possibility is only the beginning. It does not provide any answers in and of itself. Furthermore every situation is unique and different which makes it unlikely that there is a single solution. Yet, much of our rigid thinking is the result of inadvertent acceptance of collective thought, whether it is called ‘conventional wisdom’ or whether it is simply unconscious influence. Recognising that provides a good starting point in the quest for solutions, not least because it suggests that your issues might not be as unique as you think.
Let me illustrate what I am getting at.
“At any level of management, you took the job knowing that the role put you in charge and on the hot seat for every success and failure on the team — no exceptions.” Those words from Liz Ryan pack a powerful punch and certainly grabbed my attention. I don’t know whether you will agree or not, and in any case you need to read the whole article “Stop Blaming Your Employees for Your Leadership Mistakes” to appreciate all the lady is saying. I do hope, however, that you will agree it is food for thought.
That is definitely the case with her later line that “If you blame people for your stumbles, you won’t see your own part in the incident.” This had me wondering whether a failure to understand this is perhaps the root cause of the science-practitioner gap in leadership that I described in my last blog. With trust increasingly becoming a major topic in management and leadership circles this is definitely a question worth following up.
“The science of leadership is well established.” So says Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London. This premise enables him to conclude, “There is no real need to advance it in order to improve real-world practices. We should focus instead on applying what we already know, and ignoring what we think we know that isn’t true.” (“What Science Tells Us About Leadership Potential”, taken from HBR.)
That makes it sound so simple. Would that it were so! Given the professor’s own statements that, “Its key studies are unfamiliar to most people, including an alarmingly large proportion of those in charge of evaluating and selecting leaders” and “This science-practitioner gap explains our disappointing state of affairs”, we appear to have a major problem.
Several questions spring instantly to mind.