Speaking a different language
Friday, July 13, 2007/
I often come across businesses that grow quickly then stall, and even head south. The consistent flaw? A management oblivious to the value of its staff.
Recently, I was driving my granddaughter to school. She is in Year 6. I asked her if she was learning a language and she said that she was, but “badly”. “Is that because you are a bad learner or because you have a bad teacher?” “A bad teacher” was the reply.
Now my granddaughter is pretty smart and does really well at school, and the obvious conclusion occurred to me that you can have great people in an organisation but if you have a poor leader, you will never achieve greatness.
I reviewed a lot of the projects in which I had been involved in a turn around situation and compared them with some celebrated turn arounds that qualified for publication in The Harvard Business Review.
The one consistent pattern in all of the cases of sustainable success was that with the exception of senior management, the people who had been employed in the company while it was under-performing were the same people in the company when it turned around and achieved superior performance. Changing the management and keeping the people was the consistent key to success in achieving sustainable turn arounds and superior performance.
This indicates that management can and not infrequently does prevent an organisation from achieving superior performance and unfortunately, on occasions, people who might otherwise respond to leadership training, to identify where they could improve their performance, end up being redundant.
The surprising thing is that it is not until a crisis arises that these people are made aware of the deficiencies.
I asked my granddaughter if anyone ever asked her or other members of the class how they felt about their teachers, and the answer was that no one ever asked them. The result of course is a continuation of mediocrity.
I find the same thing in businesses. In confidential interviews with the staff, it emerges that no one has ever asked them to provide input on a confidential basis as to how they perceive the performance of management. The result once again is under-performance.
There are cosmetic techniques such as performance reviews (where staff often tell management what they think that management wants to hear, but rarely are they prepared to deliver bad news on a one-to-one basis); 360º where confidentiality is not assured and it is often relatively easy to identify the source of the information; and of course, the plethora of staff surveys.
Research consistently demonstrates that companies that continually achieve high performance over the long term, such as the celebrated South West Airlines, have leadership that stays in touch with the staff and creates an environment where staff feel comfortable about providing feedback when necessary. It is part of the culture. Management doesn’t have to wait for “performance reviews” because there is constant and open communication between management and staff from the top down.
So often I come across companies that have grown quickly and then stalled. Some even turn south. Without exception, we find that there is a dysfunction between management and staff and an almost total absence of communication. The result of course is that the businesses under-perform and growth is stymied.
The richness of energy, ideas and skills in people never ceases to amaze me. Accordingly, I am equally amazed when businesses call me in to help them turn around to discover that they have not leveraged or even understood the extent of the rich resources they already have in their organisation.
It can almost be said with a degree of certainty, that growth in the long term depends upon a business maximising its potential and to do this, there has to be a culture of close communication across the organisation.
This culture is developed by management demonstrating that it is never frightened to hear bad news and in fact welcomes it. I believe it was Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, who said something to the effect that “we need to hear bad news because then we can do something about it, but we can’t fix problems if we don’t know they exist”.
Managers who are “vulnerable” will be able to hear of and fix problems and will be successful in achieving sustainable growth. Managers who are closed and feel they have to “tell” staff rather than “listen” will have a hard time over the long haul.
The evidence is that with help, the latter type of manager can be assisted to develop skills to become a “listener” and those who put their hands up to do so demonstrate a unique type of courage that should not be lost to the corporation.
I am sure my granddaughter’s language teacher would welcome the opportunity to learn how to improve, but the culture simply does not exist in many educational institutions.
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