Saturday, June 19, 2010

Howie Leadership

Howie Leadership

I gave a talk recently to a room full of soon-to-graduate MBA students. We discussed the choice between behaving as a manager or being a leader.

If you want to improve from acting like a manager to becoming a leader, then here is the instant formula: Every utterance from your mouth is a question containing “how” and “we”. Before you speak a sentence out-loud, say it in your brain first. The reason you want to do this is because a leader listen first, thinks second, and speaks third. Every sentence you utter, first in your brain and then out-loud, will be a question containing the word “how” and either the word “let’s” or the word “we”.

The Howie Leader

The Manager

How can we get back on track?

This was your responsibility, why is it late?

Let’s figure this out, how can we prevent this from happening again?

Why didn’t you bring this problem to me earlier when I could have fixed it?

How can we find out what the customer really wants?

What do you think the customer wants?

How can we make sure that we are on the same page for what needs to be done and in what order?

I don’t care what anyone else said, it’s you’re job to get the priorities right. Do I have to hold your hand through every decision?

How could we anticipate what the competition will do after we launch our new line?

Tell me what you think the competition is likely to do after we launch?

Can you ask a Howie-like question and still behave like a manager? Sure! The clever manager might ask “How can we determine why you’re such an idiot?” But, while he’s being clever, he still just a manager.

Leadership is a choice, make the choice.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Engagement depends on doing useful work.

Daniel Ariely recently spoke with Robert Siegel on NPR about his new book The Upside of Irrationality. In this interview he talks about an experiment in which he asked people to put together Lego robots.

With one group, the experimentors had the subjects build as many robots as they wanted from fresh parts. And they discovered that people who said they enjoyed Legos tended to build more robots.

With the other group instead of providing an endless supply of parts they only had parts to assemble two robots. To supply parts for subsequent robots, the experimenters took apart each finished robot. They did this in front of the subjects as soon as the robot was finished. This second group built fewer robots. And, perhaps most interesting, is that under these conditions the people who reported that they enjoyed Legos, did not build more robots than the people who didn’t share enthusiasm for Legos.

In the book Advantage: Business Competition in the New Normal, I point out that one pillar of engagement is the link you create as a leader between the work an employee does and their sense of self worth. “If the work allows people to prove their worth to themselves, you have a winning formula.” By taking apart the finished robots, the experimenters took away this sense of worth, obviously the finished product had no worth, since it was immediately disassembled.

The same thing happens in companies that employ tools like a stage-gate process that “puts discipline around vetting ideas”. A stated purpose of a stage gate process is to kill most ideas, letting only the ‘best’ ideas forward. (Of course, we know that the certainty we have around the ‘best’ ideas or the ‘stupid’ ideas is every company’s Achilles heel.)

But killing an idea has the same effect as disassembling robots. It completely undermines the flow of more ideas. That is why in Advantage I suggest companies employ tools like the Risk-Gate™ process so that you never need to kill an idea. With the Risk-Gate™ process, each idea sorts itself out under the management of its creator. But nobody ever needs to kill an idea. The process allows people, who come up with an idea, to set it aside and go after a new one.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Proof: Higher employee engagement results in better financial performance.

Yesterday I sat down with an executive in transition over coffee and in the course of our conversation he described a study he’d participated in at a former employer -- a national fast-food chain. This well known chain maintains great data on the financial performance of each of its stores across the nation. It also tracks all kinds of other performance indicators having to do with road traffic patterns, demographics surrounding the stores, competition in the immediate area, foot traffic in the stores etc.,. Finally the chain performs regular employee engagement and satisfaction surveys at the individual store level.

But, as with many large organization these data sets were tracked by different departments on different systems -- the finance guys tracked financial performance, the marketing guys tracked demographic data, and HR tracked the engagement data. The systems were independent of one another and the HR piece was mostly held in the systems of the external vendor who executed the surveys. Eventually, some wise guy thought it might be informative to combine the data to see what patterns emerged. Using the marketing information to create grouping of similar businesses they compared financial result to employee engagement. It turned out that within every marketing group the pattern repeated that above average financial results correlated with above average employee engagement results.

Now you could claim the correlation was purely coincidental. Or you could claim that better financial results drove higher employee engagement. Or you could claim that higher employee engagement drove stronger financial results.

To sort out these claim, they went back and looked at historical trends within the marketing segments. It turned out that where employee engagement went up, stronger financial result followed. Those of us who deal with innovation and competitive advantage already know this is true. But it’s nice to know that someone out there has good data proving the case.