Real Improvement: It’s Just a Game!
Everyone wants to improve. However, most people tend to think of improvement in terms that are “too local” and “too transactional”. By “too local”, most people narrow the problems they face down to what they can control and tend to shrug off anything outside their control as someone else’s problem. By “too transactional”, most people think in terms of applying the fix to the problem and arriving at success. In order to survive, leaders have to take the broadest possible view of business, customers, and competition and apply a multi-level, multi-player game strategy approach to driving improvement.
A multi-level, multi-player game is typically too big and too complex for those playing the game to totally comprehend and control. With ever-faster technology change, increasingly innovative competition, and customers who always want more for less, charting a strategy that is guaranteed to win is difficult – particularly if one is looking for a “one step fix”. The best strategy to win the prize in a multi-level, multi-player game is to learn as much as you can, get started with the best approach you know, measure how you are doing, and be willing to evolve your strategy and tactics as you learn more.
In order to be guaranteed to succeed at business, one would have to have perfect knowledge of their evolving business (e.g.customers, stakeholders, employees, competitors, technology, global economy) and be able to react instantly to any changes. Rather than feeling like they have such “perfect knowledge”, most leaders I know are so busy dealing with what is on their plate right now that they have no time to learn about what might be happening “out there” that might impact. No one person can possibly know enough to succeed today – one has to develop a “fast learning, fast acting” culture.
A “fast learning, fast acting” culture is most analogous to a “team on combat patrol”. Someone has to take point and lead the way. Someone must scout the area the team will cross for danger. Everyone on the team has to know their role and be both willing and able to do it well. Everyone has to know the plan and be able to adapt in real time when the plan has to change. Most importantly, everyone has to be willing to put team success ahead of personal success. A team without these factors is much less likely to safely achieve their objectives.
In a multi-level, multi-player game, it’s not possible to know all the (seemingly random) factors that will impact your fate. The best one can do is to know your starting point, know your desired goal, know your team, and start off in the right direction. The key to the desired “fast learning, fast acting” culture key to success is frequent performance measurements relative to the goal, fast diagnosis of reasons for any widening gaps, and immediate corrective action to close those gaps and move closer to the goal. This rapid, iterative learning process can’t just take place in the CEO’s office or even just in HQ – it has to be an integral part of the culture of the whole company – everyone has to learn and fix as fast as possible.
The only way to lead a team into a “fast learning, fast acting” culture that can navigate its way through the maze of today’s multi-level, multi-player business game is to listen, learn, and listen some more. As the leader, one must put the “act, measure, diagnose, correct” iterative learning process into practice and show the team how it’s done. As others “get it”, task them with “spreading the gospel” by asking them to make improvement projects happen. This kind of change has to start at the top, find its way to the front lines, and then permeate the company from the ground up (which will only happen if leaders model and expect this behaviour relentlessly until it is second nature to everyone in the company).
Ryder Cup and Post-Modern Leadership
In the aftermath of the recent European Ryder Cup demolishing of the USA, many have said that the USA team was simply outplayed during the matches. I disagree. There were no significant differences in the 2 teams in talent, desire to win, or pressure they experienced. However, when it came down to crunch time, the European players made the key putts and erased the early deficits and won going away. The question is, with so many similarities between the two teams, what made the difference? I believe that the short answer is “leadership style”. The recent Ryder Cup can teach us a lot about the type of leadership required for businesses to survive and thrive in today’s tough environment.
Businesses need a different type of leadership in order to both survive and thrive in today’s tough business climate. Both captains wanted their 2014 Ryder Cup teams to win, but the European was a better "servant leader" who engaged in a "caring, constructive dialogue" with his team (i.e. listening to their ideas, being willing to take their input, and showing them he cared about them as people even when he didn't agree with them) and who fostered the "supportive, celebrative community" spirit that made the difference in the European team when times were tough. The triumph of the European team in the recent Ryder Cup matches is a striking illustration of how crucial this new style of leadership is to running a successful business (both now and in the future).
The recent European Ryder Cup team all commented extensively on how much time their captain invested in them in the two years leading up to the latest competition and how much discussion they had with him regarding the approach to the matches. Most team members today demand dialogue with their leaders. If they believe that their leaders care about them and have truly taken their input into account, they will remain engaged and do their best even when the decision is not in line with their input. The recent European Ryder Cup team’s success shows that “caring, constructive dialog with a leader they trust” is a key factor in a team’s engagement.
The leadership style of their captain made the European team willing to forego the normal, selfish attitude for which golfers are famous. However they played, the European team knew deep in their bones that their captain would "have their backs". The captain’s attitude was infectious and the entire team became a “supportive, celebrative community” that freed the European to perform their best under pressure and to prevail in the crucial Sunday singles matches. High performance in the face of adversity is much more likely if the person feels like they are part of something bigger than themselves who truly cares for them (i.e. a "supportive, celebrative community").
The European captain spent time over two years (often at the expense of his own personal success) frequently having dinner with his team, talking to them on the phone regularly, and spending 3 nights at the home of the most introverted, private person on the team to understand him better. He even talked to the players' caddies to learn more about what made the players tick. As a leader, he was truly serving in the team's best interest and the team knew it and responded wholeheartedly to him.
The European captain in the recent Ryder Cup matches demonstrates the leadership style that businesses need to emulate to be successful. In order to motivate our team to deal with tough global competition and with shifting technology trends in a manner that wins more than it loses, we must be "servant leaders" who engage in "caring, constructive dialogue" with our team and who lead them into a "supportive, celebrative community" that enables them to handle adversity and still triumph. Today’s employees don't follow someone because they are smart - they follow people they trust who care about them and who listen to them. As one of my friends says, "They don't care what you know until they know that you care."
July 24, 2011
How Important Is "Employment Equity"?
To begin, please be clear that I am not talking about "employee equity" (i.e. people owning stock in the company they work for). That is an important topic but my focus right now is on "employment equity", which I define as "the experience, relationships, and good will one builds up while working at a company for a period of time". When one considers new roles in their current company or offers they receive from elsewhere, I think that it is important to consider the "equity" you have built up at your current company as a factor in your decision.
First, how "employment equity" can help you develop your career. If you have done a good job with your responsibilities and people like working with you, you will likely be considered favorably for new roles that open up in areas that are related to your skills and capabilities. If people know that they can count on you to deliver results and to keep them appropriately informed, they are more likely to take a risk and let you grow into a role that you are not totally suited for at the moment. You are also more likely to be considered a good investment for scarce training and development dollars.
So, all this "upside" of "employment equity" raises the question of whether there is any "downside" to such "equity". I believe that there can be such "downside" risk and that it is wise to keep an eye out for signs of such risk developing. First, if you build up too much positive "equity", you might be considered too valuable to lose to another team or role. This may mean that you get stuck in a role that you are good at but are no longer finding challenging. In addition, you may become pigeon-holed as a great person in your current area but not suited for jobs in other parts of the company. Finally, the new role you are considering may seem like too big a leap from your current role and there may be reluctance to see such a great person try and fail at a new role (again, limiting your growth opportunities).
So, "employment equity" can be either a help or a hindrance to opening doors for new roles at your current company. One of the keys to maximizing the upside potential of your positive equity is to look for opportunities to gain experience in several areas while you are still at a relatively junior level. The higher you go in the organization, the more that you will need to already have experience in the role to be successful. Another way to say this is that people are much more reluctant to allow you to learn on the job as you move higher in the company. So, don't be in too much of a hurry to climb the ladder. Spend some time gaining experience in several areas before you climb very high - it will pay great benefits later in your career.