Mistrust is everywhere in business today. At the time of writing my first book another global economic recession was hitting the UK (and most parts of the world) and the inevitable job cuts and financial hardships returned with a vengeance. At the time of my second book we were hitting what some would say was more of a politically invoked financial crisis, accompanied by significant government cutbacks. I always remember back in 2008 when I was working with a public sector organisation, saying that by 2015 we would see a 25% cutback in public funding. I should have put money on it!
This has all brought about an even greater sense of mistrust, which is spreading, not just in business but across banking and finance, public services and even our National Health Service. This post is an extract from an article I wrote in 2008. The truth is that recessions are unavoidable and are a normal part of the cycle of economics, or human systems. I could save this article and republish it every ten years or so and it would still be very current! So, if this is a recurring and natural event, dealing with it should be fairly straightforward, and the big players, in terms of countries, will have a contingency plan for this very situation. Yes? Well actually – no. So, no surprise there then.
Manufacturers have been trying to change their approach for years and prepare for such events, without much luck it seems. There are some exceptions, such as Semco in Brazil who work on the notion of speed, adaptability, constant change and adding value throughout. We have known for some time that companies who try to compete on cost and low prices will always suffer the most, with little in the way of margins to help stave off the inevitable squeeze when it comes about. To survive now businesses need to focus on services and products that have a current, ever-evolving, value-added element, and not merely cheap alternatives.
We must also look to diversify our markets to spread the load and risk, seek niche rather than mass markets, and strive to individualise. This is where the company that invests in its employees, removes the tribal ‘managers vs employees’ culture and opts instead for an empowered, democratic workforce, will triumph.
This ‘new’ approach can only be achieved by trusting in staff and allowing them to help sort out further reductions and efficiencies, removing tiers of management, to add more value to frontline production, innovation and diversity – truly empowering staff. This will become the only way to operate in the next few decades. In short, to survive the global recession or any other assault on productivity and successful endeavour, whether local or global, we need to control fear, trust staff, be financially prudent, create innovative products and services, and look to empower the workforce, not the management of it.
One constant quote I hear from truly great leaders is – “my only task is to ensure people are allowed to be great leaders. To make sure the environment is right to grow talent”. This is simple in principle but true, and yet rarely seen.
The key, and I suppose the challenge, is that all CEO’s need to be leaders not managers, they need to be recruited and supported by frontline staff, only receive a bonus if they listen, they must help implement new ideas and allow the frontline to drive, create and satisfy customers, margins, quality and performance. They need to keep asking ‘why’ and rarely get into the ‘how’? It seems that this is likely to be the only way the future of business will work – letting employees choose what they do, where and when they do it, and even how they get paid according to the boundaries in all organisations, income, quality, customer needs, market innovation and change. This concept is too upside-down for most managers, but this IS the future, as my work will prove.
I often ask managers who are also parents, “Do you manage total control of your children?” They nearly always laugh and reply with an emphatic, “No!” Yet we think nothing of trying to exercise complete control over fully grown adult people in the workplace – we tell them what time to come in, what time to leave, we even give them a ‘job description’ for goodness sake, which we all know is a daft concept given that the first thing aggrieved unions threaten is a work to rule – working in strict adherence to the job description (rule) bringing the company to a virtual standstill!
If we treat employees like children, they will react and act like children, and so the downward spiral goes, as we react by putting in more rules, regulations, and measures, and if all else fails, another tier of supervision. By doing this, we are simply reinforcing the notion that the workforce are children. And even if we accepted the premise that the workforce is ‘child-like’, they are very unlikely to be as familiar as our own children. We rarely get to know most of the people in our companies very well, if at all, so how on earth do we expect to control them if we cannot even control our own children with whom we live?
The answer is that we don’t, and we shouldn’t even try to, and what we must try to do is influence. Influence is not control, it is emergent, and co-evolved, it changes the more we interact with our staff and customers. We must begin by attacking the ‘corporate oppression’ seen in the layer upon layer of managers with status, perceived control, and hierarchy. This can be achieved by removing time clocks, dress codes, security procedures, privileged office receptionists and secretaries. Why not let everyone meet their own visitors, send their own letters, make their own coffee? Most do, I know, but the ‘corridor of power’ still exist in many places, with daft things like ‘allotted car parking spaces’ for the Chair or CEO.
We must buy talent, not time, for success, we need to employ passion not a pair of ‘hands’, as in the old manufacturing days. Indeed, the future CEO will only attain that position after being elected by those they are about to lead, not by his/her own seniors. To reduce workload and get more people involved in taking decisions and responsibility, the layers of needless hierarchy must be eliminated.
The thought that frontline workers could directly influence their own pay and thus encourage leaders to look for savings, and to question any procedures or layers of management that don’t seem to add value, seems a distant hope for many. Adding value from the customer’s perspective is the core function of any business yet this is often forgotten in the manager’s pursuit of self-preservation, salary protection and a focus on moving up the corporate ladder.
CEO’s in the future should and will be hired and fired by frontline staff, and kept only as long as they ‘add value’. Great leaders will allow accounts, budgets and innovation to be visible and influenced by all in the organisation.
Future Leaders will need to see themselves as the ‘questioner‘, the ‘challenger‘ and the ‘catalyst‘ of all that is done and will be done in the organisation, and not in the traditional role of the creator of the new, the one brain that others follow. They will be the person who asks basic questions and encourages people to bring things down to the simplest level; to apply common sense to complicated issues. They no longer need to be involved in day-to-day affairs and, in fact, this will be the last concern as the frontline will deal with all operational issues.
The focus here is creating a world where ‘workplace democracy’ truly exists. Many are still sceptical that such a radical way of managing can actually work, but those who already do this see the immediate benefits, which include increased profits, more innovation and a workforce truly empowered and full of desire to go to work each day.
Leaders will need to give people the freedom to do what they want, and accept that over time their successes will far outweigh any failures. It seems that if you trust people to do the right thing, and if it’s obviously in their interest to do so, then they will do their best to make it happen.
So, what can your business be doing now to achieve this environment in the workplace? I’ve put together some Tips that can help you make it happen.
My Top Tips for 21st Century Leaders
- Forget about the bottom line stuff – well at least stop focussing in on it, the top line is key to achieving the bottom-line. Think values, purpose, pride, passion and people.
- Create the passion that most businesses start with. If you’ve forgotten it, then re-establish it with all staff … it’s a great thing to ask the ‘why are we here?’ question often
- Don’t always focus on growth – some companies are better small or niche – remember it’s about fun, passion, adding value and making a living …
- Never stop being a leader of people – you cannot switch leadership off. Even when you are not doing it people still gain energy, safety and comfort from your presence.
- Concentrate on attitude, not skills for the job/role – skills are important of course, especially if you are a surgeon, but attitude counts much more. Just ask a patient in your care.
- Treat people like adults and not children – if you treat people like most managers do, like five year olds, they will act like five year olds. The consequence is that you will spend most of your time wiping bottoms and chasing people around the room. Treat workers like adults and expect adult problems … you will be a leader in no time.
- Buy talent and output, but never time. Don’t focus on inputs such as sitting at the desk or asking permission to attend a seminar. Just focus on outputs, outputs and outputs – value-added to the customer driven outputs. Allow the frontline staff to concentrate on the outputs, quality, performance and of course value. You’ll be amazed at the levels they reach if you don’t interfere.
- Make decisions quickly and openly, and gather partners, openly. Don’t ever think staff won’t be able to cope with the news/honesty. If you don’t tell them, most in the company will make stuff up. And remember to guide your talks, decisions around the purpose of the organisation not the details.
- Listen, and truly understand the art of listening to others. It’s a tough one, believe me. Most people pretend to listen. How can you tell? They utter ‘ah-ums’ or ‘mmms’, or simply look away from you as they search for additional things to tell you about themselves. That’s not listening. Oh and once you have listened, act! Do something so show you have listened.
- Accept that companies will be employee and not management controlled – stick to leading the core boundaries and not the details.
- Don’t seek permission to make decisions. Remember, the leader’s role is to influence and check values are driven with the company purpose at the core.
- Focus on results and not process. Simply ask, ‘who’s delighted by this work’? and then ask ‘what are the margins and added values’?
- Remember, employees are accountable, not managers.
- If you make a mistake own-up!
Live the values and show you believe in them, this is not a marketing or PR exercise, it’s about the future of your business.