Louis Coutts

When I have gone into an organisation to turn it around, I have found that the greatest help has come from the staff.

Tune into the ground swell

Every now and then I do some research.

It is not the sort of research they do in universities, where someone develops an hypothesis and then they organise the data to confirm the hypothesis so that the academics can then say they have established a principle (which generally speaking is not the case).

The research was checking up on academia. I cut myself off from the world and took 10 years of the Harvard Business Review to put together a synopsis of what the contributors had to say about leadership.

The reason that I undertook the project related to the fact that when I have gone into an organisation to turn it around, I have found that the greatest help has come from the staff who, in confidential interviews, have been able to convey to me the problems that are ailing the organisation and what needs to be done to solve those problems.

Despite the fact that they knew what was wrong and knew what to do to address the problem, they were powerless because no one would listen to them. T

he new CEO would come in with all the answers only to establish, some time and many dollars later, that he or she didn’t have the answers, which were already there in the hearts and minds of the “staff”.

So, in this research I wanted to see how many of the gurus who contributed articles to the Harvard Business Review recognised the importance of the knowledge and emotional base of the staff, and how these resources were leveraged by the so called “leaders”.

Of all the articles over that period, with one exception, there was one paragraph that hinted at the resource the staff could be in helping to build an organisation of superior performance. After hours and hours of searching through dozens and dozens of articles, I found ONE PARAGRAPH on the relevance of the “followers”.

There were articles about the success stories of leaders who had turned companies around and made fortunes for the shareholders and these “leaders” were the heroes of these articles in one of the most prestigious business journals in the world. Only lip service was occasionally paid to the unsung heroes who were the people at the coal face who delivered the goods for the celebrity.

No turnaround in which I have been involved, no growth story with which I have been associated, and no success story of an organisation to which I have consulted has been brought to fruition other than by virtue of the enthusiastic if confidential input from the “workers”; and yet we never acknowledge the critical importance of their role when we come to academic literature.

Growth of an organisation is the product of the potential of the people who work in that organisation. It is not possible to tap into that potential by simply telling the “followers” what they have to do. If that is all a leader does, then the likelihood is that the “followers” will get somewhere near what they are directed to do.

On the other hand if they are asked not to change their persona when they enter the work place, be it a factory or an office, but still be themselves so that they can bring their individuality to the problems confronting the organisation, then there is a greater likelihood that you will get more than the increment they are urged to deliver by management.

What you will get is what they are capable of providing which, in my experience of turnarounds and growing companies, is a lot more than any increment dictated by the “leaders”.

So, this research was intended to see whether credit was given for the great turnarounds in corporations to the workers. No, with the slightest exception, all of the articles were directed to management and executive education.

On the other hand, I have found that the troops have been my greatest coachers. They have been able to send me messages in all sorts of different ways from direct communication to body language. Whenever I have responded to these messages, performance improved dramatically. Somehow, academia has not caught on to this.

I would have to say that there was one encouraging exception to this plethora of academic direction from the recesses of universities to company executives. It was from a platoon captain in the army, who confessed that everything he learnt about leadership was from the men for whom he had a responsibility.

If you want sustained growth, you better miss the Harvard Business Review and make sure you are tuned into your people.


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