Transforming Culture: Leadership Excellence

While it is true that the culture of an organization is the product of the intent of the individual, which ultimately sits with the individual, it is possible to facilitate the incremental move of people in the organisation from taking to giving by giving attention to both the organization and how it is lead. Of these two, the most significant variable is leadership. This is because, in my experience, people go by and large the extra mile for people. Rather than for organizations. In other words, if you want to account for the conditions under which people come to work to make a discretionary contribution, work because they want to, then you need to ask who the boss is and how they understand their role.

Over the last three decades we have asked many leaders to describe how they understand their role. We do this by asking them to define what the word ‘leadership’ means to them. While there are some exceptions, most of the definitions offered can be reduced to the following statement: ‘Leadership is about achieving a result through people’

Leadership is about achieving people through results

How most people see leadership is, unfortunately, deeply fraught. If it is sincerely adhered to by the leader, it will produce a disengaged group of people. Who will only work because they have to, rather than because they want to. We have the following thought experiment that helps to make sense of the difference between the boss people work for because they have to and the boss people work for because they want to.

Fred’s boss tells him: “Fred, two years ago I did what you have to do now, go and do what I did”

Joe’s boss tells him: “Joe, two years ago I did what you have to do now, it may be useful to you to take a look at what I did”

If the question is who will work because they have to and who because the want to, then Fred will work because he has to and Joe will work because he wants to. However, this is not just because the boss is being more dictatorial with Fred.

To really understand the difference between the two interactions one needs to understand the difference in the intent of the boss. In Fred’s case, the boss is trying to get a job done and he is using Fred to that end. In Joe’s case the boss is trying to be helpful to Joe and he is using the job that Joe is doing as his means to that end. Fred’s boss is achieving a result through the person, Joe’s boss is enabling the person through the result. Fred’s boss is there to take, Joe’s boss is there to give.

Coaches achieve people through results

The statement ‘leadership is about achieving people through results’ makes sense if one considers the role of a coach with regard to a team. If the coach of the soccer team, for example, told the players that it was his job to achieve a result and that he was going to use them as his resources to achieve that result the players are likely to be very discontented. After all, it is not the coach who achieves the result, it is the players who do so.

The coach’s job, rather, is to coach the player. The coach’s product is an enabled player. This does not suggest that the coach has no interest in the game that is played or the result. Clearly, the coach goes to the game and is keenly aware both of what is happening on the field and what is on the scoreboard. However, what is happening on the field and what is on the scoreboard is not the coach’s job, they are the means to do her job, which is to coach the player.

The coach’s product is the player. The player’s product is the result.

When the leader inverts means and ends in this way, they do not use people to achieve a result. They use the result as their means to enable people. They have shifted the intent of the reporting relationship with their subordinates from being there to take from them to being there to give to them. This is the most powerful shift that accounts for the shift of people for that leader from from taking to giving. In my experience, when this penny has dropped in the consciousness of a leadership team. The organization invariably takes off. The reason for this is that the people are now there to give. It stands to reason that people will not give to takers.

What People Want from a Boss

What exactly the leader should do becomes apparent when you explore the idea of the kind of boss people would work for because they want to rather than because they have to. Over the last four decades we have asked many thousands of people from many walks of life and from very different parts of the globe this simple question: ‘Describe the boss who you would work for because you wanted to’. All the content that one would elicit by asking this question can be placed in two broad categories: care and growth. 

The Boss Who Cares for People

The category of care is the softer of the two categories. It would include elements such as being approachable, kind, empathetic, helpful, protective, respectful and listening, to name but a few. What is important about this category is that it has an unconditional sense to it. What people are really saying is that the boss they work for because they want to is sincerely there for them, not just to get something out of them.

This sincerity is demonstrable by things such as the boss’ ability to listen. In other words, to suspend their agenda for the agenda of the subordinate. Another example of this unconditional element would be something like the boss being supportive. It is very important to people to know that their boss will not throw them under the bus when it would be expedient for them to do so. 

The Boss Grows People

Further to this kind theme mentioned above, people would also refer to tougher elements such as the boss being honest, fair, and giving feedback.  Clearly, if one worked for a boss who was always honest with you, that boss would not always be nice. Sometimes they would say things that would be quite upsetting to hear. The question would then be, why you would want to get the honest feedback if it would upset you? You would want it because you know it is for your best, for you to learn and to grow.

This growth theme is also apparent in other things. Things that initially don’t sound quite so confrontational. For example, I often hear people say that they would want to work for a boss who would not interfere. Rather they would let them get on with the job, or empower them. What is apparent, though, is if that the boss did that then the subordinate becomes accountable, which is tough. The boss is, however, treating them as an adult. The boss is growing them.

Care and Growth and Legitimate Power

What is truly remarkable about these care and growth criteria is the consistency whereby they are adhered to. Of all the thousands of people from all over the world who have answered the question ‘who is the boss you would work for because you wanted to’ we have yet to find a single element that you cannot ascribe to one of the two categories: CARE or GROWTH. We need to account for this consistency.

The first thing that becomes apparent if you work for someone because you want to, is that you implicitly give that person the right to ask you to do things or to exercise power of you. This suggests that these care and growth criteria are the universal criteria for legitimate power. That this should be the case becomes apparent when you examine the following:

The first relation of power that one had with any other person in one’s life is with one’s parents. And in so far it is the first relationship ,it is a principle relationship. In a sense one can deduce the principle of a matter by examining the first manifestation of the matter.

What is apparent in the relationship between the child and the parent is that the two are not equal. There is a very definite sense of hierarchy in the relationship. However, that hierarchy or inequality has a purpose. And the purpose is that the parent should care for and grow the child.

The job of the big one for the little one in any relationship of power is care and growth.

When the big one acts consistently with this criterion the big one is doing with power what power is there for. Their power is legitimate. The principle we glean for this is that any relationship of power is legitimate if the aim of that relationship is the care and growth of the subordinate.

Legitimate Power and Control

If we assert that what makes the power of the leader legitimate, is that they care for and grow the subordinate it suggests we have a skeptical take on control. After all, grown or empowered people have autonomy. They can make decisions. One could even go as far as to say that power and control are opposites.

The boss with real power is the boss people work for because they want to. That boss is powerful. Because the people are loyal to them. It is in the Joe interaction where you say to Joe ‘two years ago I did this job, take a look, it may be useful’ that Joe becomes loyal. Not only that, Joe is accountable. He has control over what is being done.

Empowered people are accountable

When you say to Fred ‘two years ago I did this, do what I did’ you, the boss, are accountable. You are controlling Fred. This suggests that you can only have real power based on the degree to which you are willing to forgo control.

Care and Growth is Concerned with an Incremental Suspension of Control

The less mature and able a person is, the more appropriate it is to control that person. One does not allow the same degree of autonomy to a child as you do to an adult. A child, for instance may not legally drive a car, whereas an adult may. Growth is by its nature an incremental process. Therefore, to empower or grow a person requires an incremental suspension of control.

Empowerment and Means, Ability and Accountability.

In each increment of suspension of control there is a rule of thumb. It is consistent with the dictum ‘don’t give a person a fish; empower them to fish’. If I was not at all able to fish and you wanted to empower me to do so, the first thing you would give me would be the means to do so. This would probably include a hook, some line, bait, etc.

You would also need to make me able to fish. Then, you would teach me how to bait a hook. Then where to cast. And thereafter,  what the habits of the various species that I would want to catch would be. You would also teach me why I should fish. By indicating that I will not only be fed for a day, but that I could feed my family over the long term.

However, assume you have comprehensively given me all the means and ability I required to fish. But I was also a very lazy person. You, on the other hand, had a freezer full of fish, and said to me ‘Don’t worry, if you don’t catch a fish I will give you one from my freezer’. Under these conditions I would not be very engaged in this fishing escapade.

An authentic coach

This suggests that there a bloody mindedness that you need to evidence at this point. You need to say to me ‘If you don’t catch a fish after this, starve’. You need to hold me accountable for what I have been entrusted with. This suggests that empowering a person means to do three things:

  • To give the person the means to do what is required of them
  • To make them able to do what’s required of them
  • To hold the person Accountable.

In an organisational context means would include giving someone the resources, the tools, the authority and the information to do the job. Further to this one would also give the subordinate your time if you were the boss, consistent with the coaching analogy, a coach cannot coach a game she is not watching.

Care and Growth requires the presence of the leader.

Consistent with the idea of ability is, firstly, to ensure that the person knows how to do what is required of them. More importantly, they also need to know why they should do what is required of them. This why is related to what we refer to as the benevolent intent of the job. In other words, what value do we add and to whom by doing what we do.

Finally, this issue of accountability is about consistent rewards and punishments. In the middle of the issue of accountability is the issue of standards. You cannot hold somebody accountable for anything if there is not a clear standard for what is required of them. A clear, known standard is part of the job, and someone’s performance could either be above or below that standard.

Someone’s performance could be on or above the standard in one of two ways: they are either going the extra mile or they are careful to meet the standard.

Reward People for Going the Extra Mile:

When someone has gone the extra mile it appropriate to reward them. This is not meant in the spirt of wanting to motivate the person. It is meant to fairly indicate the appropriate gratitude for what they have done.

Recognise people for acting to standard:

When someone has done what is required of them, it is appropriate to say thank you.  I often hear leaders say that when somebody is doing what is required of them, the leader need do nothing. Because the person is being paid for what they are doing. This is to suggest that the leader need not show basic courtesy. Just because some else is paying. It seems to me that the requirement ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ has not been abrogated just because you are at work.

Censure or warn people for being careless:

When someone has not acted to standard due to carelessness, it is appropriate that the matter is viewed as a disciplinary matter. And that the sanction given be a warning. This warning could be anything from a verbal to a final written warning.

Punish or dismiss people for being deliberately malevolent:

When someone deliberately acts contrary to the standard and has the means and the ability to act to standard they should be dismissed.

How Leaders get Empowerment Wrong:

It is clear from the above, that there is a logical order to the three elements of empowerment. You cannot hold a person accountable if you have not given them means and the ability to do what is required of them. In fact, to do so would be both harsh and unfair. We refer to this as the hard mistake. The hard mistake is to treat means and ability issues as if they are accountability issues.

There is, however, another mistake that leaders make. We call this mistake the soft mistake, which is to treat accountability issues as if they are means and ability issues.

The soft mistake

Let’s say, for example, you have somebody working for you who has all the means to do what is required of them. And they are perfectly able to do what is required of them. Their performance, however, is below standard and in response you coach the person. Or you change the standard that is required of them or give them more means. This is to treat an accountability issue as if it is a means or an ability issue. This is what we call the soft mistake.

Of the two mistakes, the soft mistake is the one that gets committed most frequently in large organizations. It is also the most destructive of the two mistakes. Because it is the equivalent of leaving the rotten apple in the barrel. If people are not held accountable then, over a period of time, more and more people perform below standard.

The soft mistake also gives rise to an incremental growth of control in organizations. Rather than an incremental suspension of control. This is due to a phenomenon that one can refer to as the ‘let’s not witch hunt’ syndrome. This ‘let’s not witch hunt’ syndrome is manifest when something goes wrong and the boss decrees: ‘let’s not witch hunt, lets rather make sure it never happens again’. What that means practically is ‘let’s not establish who is accountable, lets rather impose another control’.

How the person is lead

A small example would demonstrate the case. Let us assume that a group of executives at the same level of an organisation are all permitted to use a company issued credit card on company business. They have been training how to use the card. And futhermore, what to use it for and how to reconcile their card account with the company accounts. John Parsons, one of the team members, is found having used his credit card to pay for home renovations. Because his boss does not want to have a witch hunt, he sends John on a corporate governance course. Then he takes the credit cards away from everyone else. He does not hold John accountable. He deals with John as if John still has something to learn. And he imposes a control which punishes everyone else.

In Summary

The most significant single variable that accounts for the degree to which the average person in an organisation is going to be there to make a contribution is how that person is lead. The leader who solicits that discretionary contribution will be there to give themselves which, in the first instance would mean they are not there to achieve a result through people, they are there to achieve people through results. The authority that they have over subordinates will be experienced as legitimate because they will be there to care for and grow them. This growth will be demonstrable in the fact that the provide means, ability and accountability to people for them, to be able to do their jobs.

Part of providing the means is to ensure that the organisational context that people are operating is geared to enable the autonomy that is required for people to choose to give.

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