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Leadership under the Roman Arch
Would You Stand Under the Arch?
The ancient Romans had a tradition: Whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible: He stood under the arch.”
When I used to teach a unit on leadership for our local Chamber of Commerce I would challenge those emerging leaders to “come to work every day willing to be fired for doing the right thing”.
I used to tell the people on my HR teams the same thing.
Over the last few weeks that has been a lot out there in the blogosphere that talks about what I might call legitimacy.
I believe that to a large extent leadership, as opposed to management, is founded in legitimacy.
Leadership is entirely relational versus hierarchical.
A transitioning special operator from the US army described it to me this way-
“On our teams we have a shared leadership model. It was only when our new officers recognized and embraced that they really needed to earn our trust that we would truly follow them. We could learn from them, but they could also learn from us.”
I would submit that these special operators, the elite of our military which include groups like the Navy Seals and Green Berets epitomize high performing teams and engagement.
As a manager you have the authority of your position and the benefit of what Covey calls deterrence, authority that comes from rules or position. We would like to believe that management also incorporates Covey’s second level competence, but I am not sure that is true.
At least not competence at the right things.
In many cases the competence we rely on in elevating someone to a management role is based on application of their technical skills, their competence in emotional and social intelligence are still considered “soft skills”.
In my over 30 years as a human resources professional, C level executive, and management consultant it has been interesting to see emerging and current “leaders” bridle at the idea that they have to earn trust.
For many it is an expectation that trust is embedded in their role.
It is very chic today to dismiss collective bargaining and unions as passé, but any student of the relationship between employer and employed realizes that up until the 1940’s the concept that employers needed legitimacy through the input of their employees was considered ludicrous.
I suspect our new President isn’t big on the legitimacy model….
Many of our current models still have their roots in scientific management-managers manage and people do. If you see people as human capital, what is the likelihood that you are seeking the endorsement of those you “lead”?
Michelle Berg wrote a great post a few weeks back telling us about a conversation she had with a group of marketing professionals about why she “hates” HR. If you read the article what Michelle is really describing is a leadership fail- we ask HR to make up for what she calls shitty leadership.
I agree with her, I have seen a lot of this in my three decades plus career, and the reality is that this really is a leadership fail, not an HR fail.
I remember many years ago when our CEO couldn’t figure out what key metrics to assign me as the Human Resources manager for my management incentive plan, (That’s a topic for a whole separate post).
He proposed that my entire incentive be based on executing a meaningful improvement (ten percent or more), on our employee climate survey.
I would be the only manager who had this goal….
I countered with the idea that I would put the same percentage of my incentive on the line for that single metric as he was…
As you might suspect he wasn’t amused. He also declined to accept my challenge. He wouldn’t stand under the arch.
I think one of the fundamental differences between management and leadership is that commitment to personal accountability and being willing and able to create alignment with the vision.
There are some excellent models out there to accomplish this kind of alignment. Three of my favorites are offered by Stephen MR Covey, Patrick Lencioni, and Malcolm Gladwell.
Covey talks about the three levels of trust and the trust tax that the majority of organizations are paying.
Lencioni lays out a roadmap for what he calls the journey to organizational health, with the two most critical factors being building a cohesive leadership team and creating and reinforcing clarity.
Gladwell talks about legitimacy.
According to Gladwell legitimacy occurs when three elements are present-
• Those who are governed have a voice in the process; their input is sought and heard.
• There is a dimension of predictability and consistency in the application of the law or standards.
• The application of the law or standard has to be administered fairly and objectively, you can’t have disparate treatment without a clear and compelling reason.
There are interesting connect points between these three (at least to me).
Covey describes his three levels of trust and how it is the third level, identity based trust, that is the most critical.
He uses scary words like intimacy, transparency, andshared experiences. It gets even scarier when he describes the idea that credibility is a function of both competence and behavior.
You have to do both.
Lencioni describes trust as the critical foundational element of a cohesive leadership team and organizational health. I am pretty sure he means identity based trust versus deterrence or just knowledge.
I see these elements in Gladwell’s description of legitimacy. Words meet actions, consistently.
There is and has been a lot of discussion about employee engagement these days. There are detractors who say it is all bullshit and then supporters like me who think if you aren’t seeing results it’s because you are doing it wrong.
Lencioni describes three biases that can get in the way of meaningful cultural change and I see them in the way many organizations approach engagement-
· Sophistication- it is just too simple. I hear from organizations a lot when we introduce fundamental skills training for emerging leaders that there is no “rocket science” to things like setting expectations, giving feedback, taking corrective action, and coaching.
I agree the concepts aren’t rocket science you just have to do them consistently and hold people accountable if they aren’t doing them!
· Adrenaline- creating organizational health and identity based trust doesn’t happen over a long weekend or a management retreat. It doesn’t happen by conducting an engagement survey either. Engagement is a culture, not a program. It doesn’t belong to HR.
· Quantification- although we have gotten a lot better at being able to quantify the benefits of engagement it is still a little bit nebulous. I here from people “we did a survey and engagement and/or productivity didn’t improve.” I ask them if they addressed the issues from the survey and I get the thousand- yard stare. Or they tell me that “gave it to HR to fix”.
Changing a culture is hard and the work never stops. It is also a systemic process. You can’t just approach one part like hiring or compensation and expect to see widespread results.
For the last three decades I have been promoting and teaching the merits of an employment relationship based on Commitment rather than compliance.
My particular model is based on five elements-
· Respect- everyone has an absolute entitlement to be treated with respect for their personhood.
· Responsibility- I am a big fan of what our Founding Fathers called personal competency. People should be treated like adults and expected given clear expectations and feedback to meet those expectations.
· Information- I am a huge believer in context and a link to the big picture. Simon Sinek calls this the Why.
· Equitable compensation- people perform better when they believe they are being paid fairly for their effort and they understand how those decisions are made. Paying someone fairly is a threshold, not a breakthrough.
· Mutual Loyalty- when I hear employers lament the lack of loyalty I want to laugh. Employees didn’t invent the term human capital or come up with strategies like outsourcing or offshoring to increase profitability. Loyalty should be measured by contribution, not tenure.
These elements are anchored on a foundation of trust. I would go so far as to say you have to have trust at all three levels to experience true engagement.
When the employment environment is optimized in a commitment based model it results in employee engagement.
Surveys still come out every year that reinforce that the most important role played by human resources professionals is compliance. This is consistent from both operational executives and human resources professionals themselves. This is what Michelle was referring to when she called it shitty leadership!
Alternatively, a recent survey of all four generations in the workforce identified the following on employee’s wish list-
• Open and transparent communication
• Respect for them and other employees
• A supervisor/boss that coaches and supports their growth and advancement
• A supervisor/boss that recognizes them and their performance
I don’t think you need to negotiate your culture with employees, but I do think they are entitled to clear expectations, constructive feedback, and fair treatment.
When you provide that kind of context you are allowing employees to join up with you.
On that foundation when change is introduced you do it with rather than to people.
Engagement and legitimacy don’t “belong” to HR, they belong to leadership at every level.
At the individual manager level, I would encourage you to consider the following
· Ask your internal and external customers how you can help them and make them more successful. If you don’t think you have any internal customers give me a call. We have work to do.
· Ask your staff what obstacles you can remove to make their job more efficient or easier.
· Ask the people on the front line how your products and services can be enhanced or modified to make them easier to address their needs.
· Ask your peers how they think you and your group are doing. You are an internal service provider.
· Ask your boss how you can help them. This may seem a little obvious, but you will be surprised from how you communicate to taking a task off their list can make a difference.
At the organizational level, I think we need to address these things with a level of urgency.
While the number of employees who rate themselves as highly engaged had remained constant for a few years (around 30%), those numbers are starting to decline and disengagement and voluntary attrition in an already competitive market are on the rise.
For those of you unfamiliar with disengagement, it is the phenomenon where employees are extremely unhappy, but they stay and “poison the well” rather than look for other opportunities. What is truly scary is they are no more likely to leave on their own power than employees who are neutral.
The data is in and it is conclusive - there is a direct correlation between employee engagement and customer engagement. In fact, the data shows a direct relationship between disengagement and presenteeism and turnover to the tune of $5 trillion annually.
We can’t run away from it anymore….