Leading in a High Performance Workplace
Article by Footdown Director Mike Carter
‘I can’t retire until I croak. I don’t think they [other people] quite understand what I get out of this…’ Keith Richards
Employees that look forward to entering their workplace every workday, and who do so with high energy, are giving high performing organisations the best possible chance of success. Whether it is the Rolling Stones or Apple, motivation is rarely about money; it is because it makes people feel good about themselves and what they do.
Whether it be the banking collapse in 2008, the continuing machinations in the Euro crisis, or debates about the over-consumption of global resources, events seem to be less predictable, more complex, dynamic and more intractable than ever before. As a consequence, in order to create and maintain engaged high performance, the need for organisations to align and leverage creative capability has never been greater.
Coping with the challenges of global uncertainty (and opportunity) requires new forms of organising that shift companies away from some of the dependency led characteristics of ‘mass production’: fixed roles, limited personal responsibility and assumptions of a stable environment. Instead, successful, contemporary organisations are predicated by characteristics more representative of ‘mass innovation’: performance led behaviours based upon the use of responsible initiative, interdependence and mutual respect, where there is little option other than for employers and employees to become engaged and aligned in behaviours appropriate to their purpose and direction.
In rapidly changing environments, adroitness is a synonym for success where the role of leadership is to create the context in which people can thrive. A blending of appropriate expectation and investment where leaders who aspire to create a high performance workplace balance challenge for their people with investment in their people. Sustainable high performance is achieved where people are challenged to deliver results with appropriate support – enabling them to achieve through commitment and enthusiasm.
Figure 1 (above) further develops the concepts of expectation and investment by grouping likely shifts in the status quo according to the ratios of expectation/investment that people perceive in their working environment. Whether or not it is the intention of leaders people tend to respond to how they think they are both valued and add value. This is dynamic low paradigm science but it is intended to attune leaders to the cause and effect of misalignment in culture, strategy and execution. There are times when leaders deliberately move the fulcrum point between expectation and investment e.g. the deliberate raising of expectation to tune people into a potential issue or raising of investment after a testing project. The conscious and considered intervention of ameliorating this tension is part of the practice of good leadership but the unconscious isolation of people out of fit with the right balance of expectation and investment for too long has consequences.
Definitions of expectation and investment vary from organisation to organisation but too much or too little of either, for too long, causes an imbalance for which there can be significant penalties. Examples being:
M&S relied on 100 years of growth and customer loyalty. It found life too easy, failed to initiate change and flipped from a state of complacency to anxiety as record profit gave way leading to redundancies and loss of shareholder confidence with all the forced changes in behaviour this engendered. Middle managers were perfectly aware that the market (particularly for fashion) had shifted and that premium brands such as Hugo Boss was competing for the same customers with increasing success. But their voices and concerns were overlooked by strategic leaders who failed to invest responsibility in those they relied upon to implement policy and interpret messages coming up from the stores.
EMI Music had the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Coldplay and Robbie Williams but they resisted ‘new forms of delivery’ relying instead on the ownership of creative content that had done them very well for decades…until the internet changed everything, Apple became the biggest retailer of music and EMI flipped into anxiety, stress and decline. For years the music industry found making money very easy, often at the expense of their artists, particularly in the formative stages of their careers. Many music executives lived the rock n roll lifestyles but it was their high profile artists who caught the attention of the media. Life was so comfortable (high extrinsic rewards) and the level of expectation so low (little incentive to challenge complacency) that the industry was blinded to the wider context in which they worked.
RBS went from a small bank to the largest bank in the world within an 8 year period, but toxic leadership believed that they really were masters of the universe and made one deal too many on borrowed money at the very moment that the world’s economy imploded resulting in catastrophic loss for RBS and the UK tax payer. The Board of RBS had overseen the rapid expansion of the bank in which the Fred Goodwin the CEO took an increasingly one dimensional view of growth at all costs, caught up by the mantra of ‘any leverage is good leverage’ (e.g. colluding with the conversion of toxic assets into triple A rated investment grade bonds) they failed to create a culture of expectation based upon probity and responsibility.
Maintaining an appropriate mix of expectation and investment for people is an active process. It needs to operate at all levels of an organisation, and be contextualised to local need. In the high performance workplace leaders engage in joint enterprise unfettered by the constraints of authority-based decision-making that blocks communication and blinds organisations to opportunity and threat. Rather their role is to provide a clear direction and help maintain a positive cultural equilibrium based upon collaborative behavioural principles. Of course, teams are able to provide their own utility to learning, innovation, creativity and even leadership without the intervention of leaders, but here leaders play a key role rather than the key role by building organisational resilience; harmonising individual and organisational needs. The right people, with the right skills and experience working in the right way at the right time in order to get the right results.
Teams produce quality products and services using innovative techniques, not because the organisation is committed to altruistic principles or that it “is the right thing to do”, but because investment in peoples work is driven by and linked to a clear organisational ambition. The high performance workplace takes the view its people are central to executing company strategy. Operations, organisation and infrastructure are designed to support those who implement and execute that strategy not just those that define the strategy. Thus, the linkage of organisation values and behaviours through the discipline of formal policy and performance practice is simply too important to leave to chance, albeit a difficult balance to achieve and maintain.
Sustainable organisation development requires convergent periods where structure, systems, controls and resources are directed toward increased alignment. However, organisation development without innovation is sustainability without purpose (long-term failure). Innovation requires persistence: commitment that inhibits the plausibility of alternatives and yet innovation without development is expediency without sustainability (short-term wins). These forces appear entirely non-rational and yet they define the dichotomy inherent for leaders in the high performance workplace – the temptation, at times of stakeholder pressure to take the short-term wins and, potentially, undermine the confidence of their people to work towards creative long-term success. It is the skilled arbitration and moral courage to promote embedded continuity (a secure track to run on), whilst embracing the need for change (a place to go) again this is a question of balance; a nice word but an evil concept!