As I begin this article, I am sitting in the offices of one of our clients where we have been tasked to give one last big push to assist the executive team to try and save the operation before aggressive, even desperate, measures are taken to turn it around, or a “shut it down” will result.
While I admire and respect the leaders in this organisation for their tenacity and determination, as we have met with them and their teams across every division, what is becoming more and more clear is that their concerns and battles all actually come down to just two or three things at which they are very poor.
And my having the time and opportunity to write while here is a direct result of the coming together of these weaknesses.
Why do I feel the need to write such an article? Because the struggles faced in this organisation are not isolated or unique, and as you read this, you may be struggling with similar issues, feeling similar pressures even if your core business is different.
Let me quickly provide you with some context regarding this organisation and the industry within which it operates:
The first thing worth noting is that this company is fanatical about measurement. They have to be as their product must be carefully extracted and processed to be worth anything. In this particular operation there are approximately 3500 employees. Safety is a massive and overarching priority. Government is a continually interfering third party, but their presence certainly assists in the maintenance of standards. Unions are a constant headache, but are a must have to avoid worker exploitation. And, as in so many industries, there is massive pressure to perform at levels enjoyed pre global depression, while coming to terms with slow sector growth, cautious markets, and battling ongoing labour disputes.
That is certainly a leadership minefield if ever there was one.
What then are these “game changers” the leaders in this organisation are struggling with?
In order of importance, they are as follows:
This is by far their greatest and most far reaching problem. It is not unusual for any organisation to have trouble in this area, but we must understand that an inability to resolve this issue can and does cause businesses to implode.
Some key mistakes include:
- Senior management doesn’t ask, they tell. This is a multifaceted concern because the implication is that many of their key decisions are based in and upon information gathered at too much of a distance.
- This first point is made all the more complex because lower management is scared to report poor results or challenges, so they don’t.
- While leaders are actively communicating horizontally, the vertical movement of information is extremely slow.
- And up and down the management structure leaders promise one thing but end up doing another.
~Not valuing different perspectives
This goes hand in hand with poor communication, and in some ways may be the cause of it.
Virgin Group Chairman, Sir Richard Branson, says the following regarding this issue:
“I believe in using and harnessing other people’s knowledge and experience, which is why I like to work holistically, within a team. Harnessing energy is like harnessing brainpower. What’s the point of selecting someone for a particular task if you ignore his or her experience and ability? It’s like consulting experts and not even considering their advice.”
Each group session we hold sees us meeting with teams that are able to boast collective experience amounting to near on, and sometimes exceeding, 100 years. And if we see ten groups in a week, we begin to talk about exposure to a lot of experience!
For the longest time, this operation was not tapping into this, they were not valuing what is potentially their most important source of insight and wisdom.
Key question for all of us: How can we better access the “treasure trove” of knowledge and understanding available to us through our employees as we seek answers and solutions to critical issues?
~Fighting the man not the problem
It is the perception of many of their experienced staff members that they are being attacked personally when they approach management with a challenge or problem.
When the perception is created that senior management are attacking the individual and showing a lack of respect for the dignity and value of their people, it will quickly become a serious obstacle to unity, innovation and performance. Leaders who do this are in danger of destroying their most valuable leadership asset: the trust and respect of their people. Both trust and respect are easy to break down but take a significantly longer time to build.
“Unlike top management at Enron, exemplary leaders reward dissent. They encourage it. They understand that, whatever momentary discomfort they experience as a result of being told they might be wrong, it is more than offset by the fact that the information will help them make better decisions.”
Warren Bennis, author and organizational consultant
The above highlights challenges facing many organisations who find themselves under severe pressure to perform. It is our experience that those amongst these organisations that manage to turn their fortunes around, do so by focusing on building trust amongst staff, and by having the courage to honestly define and confront the challenges facing them without reverting to the blame game.
This specific organisation that I am talking about in this article does in fact have leaders with that kind of courage, who are committed to turning the organisation around. They just seem to revert back to bad habits or old behaviours at times of severe pressure and stress, and this can often turn into a downward, self-perpetuating spiral.
I am convinced they will be able to quickly turn things around as they consciously, proactively, and honestly confront their challenges and tap into the vast know-how their experienced staff members are so willing to share.
In closing, let us consider the following report and accompanying analogy from one of the world’s greatest business and leadership consultants and trainers that I feel brings together beautifully all of the points being raised:
Dr Stephen Covey, in his book The 8th Habit, shares the findings of a survey of 23,000 employees drawn from a number of companies and industries:
- 37% said they have a clear understanding of what their organisation is trying to achieve and why
- Only one in five was enthusiastic about their team’s and organisation’s goals
- Only one in five said they had a clear “line of sight” between their tasks and their team’s and organisation’s goals
- 15% felt that their organisation fully enables them to execute key goals
- Only 20% fully trusted the organisation they work for
He then goes on to share an easily relatable comparison that helps us to fully understand these statistics:
“If, say, a soccer team had these same scores, only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 of the 11 would care. Only 2 of the 11 would know what position they play and know exactly what they are supposed to do. And all but 2 players would, in some way, be competing against their own team members rather than the opponent.”
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