The perpetual balancing act between selfishness and selflessness, or self-interest and group-interest, is evolutionarily fundamental. So much so that it has been described as “The Paradox of Being Human.” Thus, while I have written about it before, I have not stopped thinking about it and it remains integral to everything I do. Recently, I have been seeking a way to portray it more effectively, and, in the spirit of “a picture being worth a thousand words”, more graphically.
Recently I came across an article in the July-August 2015 Harvard Business Review entitled, “People before Strategy.” (I am not sure the link will work, but you can try clicking here to read it for yourself.) I was particularly struck by the sub-title, “A New Role for the CHRO”, for my immediate response was “How many organisations have a CHRO?”
I guess to some extent that is the intended response. Certainly the useful summary table provided in the article infers this.
“Mine!” Who hasn’t heard a young child say that? The concept of ownership is one of our most primitive senses. Indeed, I once read that the difference between North American and South American history, (both colonised around the same time) could be attributed to the encouragement of land ownership stimulating the greater development of the North.
Be that as it may, you would have some difficulty arguing against the idea that ownership is an integral part of capitalism. The concepts of limited liability and the lasting, legal persona of the corporation would not have been possible, or nearly as successful, without distributed ownership and the amelioration of risk it created. So much so, that you might even argue that ownership is the heart of capitalism. Which is why it is strange that so little has been done to make employees owners. Even stranger – and certainly ironic – is that efforts to encourage this are sometimes seen as socialism!
In fact, making your employees co-owners of your business has to be the ultimate in capitalism. Why? Because it also gives them a stake in the outcome. This makes it more personal. It gives them the pride of possession. Now, instead of simply being ‘servants of the organisation’ they become ‘partners in our organisation.’
In 1991 Charles Handy concluded that the basic purpose of an organisation is to perpetuate itself within the context of the environment in which it operates. You might not have thought about it in quite that way, but that conviction encapsulates and drives everything you do as a business leader. It shapes the way you think, the way you act and the way you expect others to think and act. That’s perhaps inevitable, but nonetheless spelling it out provides food for thought. Not least because it demands a long-term outlook.
Most business leaders will plead that they are thinking about the long-term and will cite all their strategic planning efforts as evidence of this. Yet, notwithstanding this, there seems to be increasing consensus that focus is too much on the short-term. All too often corporate failure seems to come as a major surprise: whether after a long-lingering painful demise that drained energy and resources, without achieving anything and failing to avoid the inevitable, or suddenly, as with the failures that precipitated the 2008 financial crisis. This is subjective territory and open to discussion beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that we need a more effective way of addressing the longer-term measures of organisational performance.
Here too Handy once again gives us some pointers as to how. He said, “The companies that survive longest are the ones that work out what they uniquely can give to the world not just growth or money but their excellence, their respect for others, or their ability to make people happy. Some call those things a soul.” I call it ‘Love at Work.’ But whatever you call it, it stems from people – your employees, your customers, and your suppliers – and the way you treat them – and Science supports this!
Of course you are not a talking head. But are you – or any members of your team – in danger of becoming one or being seen as one?
A talking head is defined as “A person, especially a news reporter, an interviewer, an expert, etc., who appears on television in a close-up, hence essentially as a bodiless head.” Unless you are a regular on the screen this might not seem to apply to you! Yet, as we all get so busy and obsessed with targets, deadlines and performance measures, heads start ruling hearts and we risk becoming metaphorical talking heads. This is not good.
“Fortune favours the bold.” Or, perhaps Queen Elizabeth I’s legendary rendering of the sentiment as “Faint heart never won fair maiden”, may be more appropriate here. But, whichever statement you prefer, it’s true. After finally unveiling 'Love at Work' after hesitating for several months, I now question why I did. The response has been entirely positive.
That is not to say it has been overwhelming, but perhaps that is hardly surprising, if you fail to see the benefits immediately apparent. So let me take this opportunity to try to explain 'Love at Work' in a way that I hope will get you as excited about it as I am. The diagram should help, even though it does take some explaining.
Continuing with the recent theme of leadership and the question of whether or not you are a good leader, here is something else you can do to find out. Ask yourself, “Do I focus on value?”
That might seem like a very strange question. Your instinctive reaction may be to shrug it off and say “Of course!” But I urge you to probe a little deeper. You may recall Oscar Wilde’s line that, “A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing!” Unfortunately cynicism seems to be a trap that many business leaders can fall into all too easily. So it may be useful to take a good, honest look at yourself, your behaviour and your thinking, to be sure that you haven’t inadvertently fallen into that trap.
Continuing with the last week’s theme and pursuing the subject of leadership and the question of whether or not you are a good leader, another area worth assessing is your organisational well-being. Is this a topic you ever consider and, if so, to what extent? Ideally you will regularly be asking yourself:
- What is the state of our organisational well-being?
- Am I doing enough or could/should I being doing more to improve it?
Yet you are perhaps unlikely to be doing so. Why? Because there does not even seem to be any generally accepted definition of organisational well-being!
If you are supremely confident, you might respond quickly, “Of course!” If you are more modest or less confident you might say, “I think so.” Either way, the likelihood is, like most executives and senior leaders, you are accustomed to empirical performance measures and will therefore have a reasonable basis for your answer. Accustomed to being in control and, perhaps unwilling to come across as unsure, you would be unlikely to stall by asking, “What do you mean by good?”
Yet, ‘good’ is a subjective term, and you would be quite within your rights to seek further clarification, or even to pull out that old consulting chestnut by responding, “It depends.” The fact is, your answer might well depend on who is operating the lie-detector and what lies behind the question or where the emphasis lies. Hopefully, however, the pressure derives from the lie-detector and this is a question you regularly ask yourself anyway. (If it isn’t, you definitely have little right to answer positively. A good leader will always be questioning their performance and looking to do better.)
So let’s move on to take a look at what you are doing to assess your leadership, and perhaps identify pointers for improvement.
You don’t have to be a leader to be aware of the pace of change and the challenges of competing and surviving in today’s global market. As a leader, however, you certainly face them every working hour; perhaps every waking hour and possibly even in your sleep. But then, no-one ever said survival was easy. On the contrary, you’ve always relished the fact it isn’t, and that is what has driven you.
Even so, there must be times when you feel like an early explorer and question why you ever embarked on your journey. If you do, there is no shame in admitting it. Those intrepid sailors must have had doubts in the face of severe storms miles away from anything familiar. And your situation is not dissimilar. You may not have left the shore, but you are just as much a pioneer, trying to map out routes for others to follow. No-one has ever before had to meet the challenges you do, on the scale you do, or with the consequences you face. Arguably, the risks are no less significant now than they were then.
If you haven’t ever considered yourself in this light, perhaps now is a good time to do so. And to question how you are performing in the role.