Saturday, February 9, 2008

Are you a 21st century manager?

`Why is it that whenever I ask for a pair of hands, a brain comes attached?’'
Henry Ford, US automaker, 1908.

As a man of his time, Henry Ford had one view of employees – as simple machines to do his bidding. Enquiring minds and human emotions just got in the way.

A hundred years on we know that only when the mind and spirit are fully engaged can we deliver our very best work.

We also know that democracy and freedom, as principles for life and prosperity, work far better than dictatorship and control.

Yet how many of today’s enterprises walk this talk? Not many, I venture.

Let me put to you a question : “How `turned on’ are people in your business?”

One way to test this is to compare their achievements at work to what they accomplish out of hours?. Do your people give freely their very best?

Or do they only come truly alive on the weekend?

If it’s the latter, you are not alone! Only a few leading firms have cracked it, and mine is not yet one of them.

Indeed, I can recently recall an employee who barely had a pulse at work but represented her country in sport as well as being a successful creative writer.

So why do we persist in our failure to get the best of people at work?

According to Gary Hamel, writer of `The Future of Management’ (Harvard University Press 2007), we fail because we are trapped in the Henry Ford model of management which, put very simply, sees a commanding `brain’ of managers controlling an unthinking `body’ of automatons who follow orders.

It is our failure, Hamel argues, to move to a more democratic, power-sharing management model that is strangling the potential of our organisations.

He highlights the achievements of companies such as Google, WL Gore, Whole Foods Market and Semco, all of whom have turned traditional management models on their head.

In these companies, the cold steel of directives and bureaucratic control has been replaced by an humanistic model of management built around the goal of harnessing employees full commitment.

Within them, you see employee democracy and decentralisation taken to levels which sound, on the face of it, quite frightening.

Managers are selected and appraised by their own staff. People choose their own hours and pay and write their own job descriptions. Employees at Google, for example, have a right to refuse to do something they are asked to do if they feel that their time needs to be spent doing something different.

It sounds like a recipe for disaster. Yet these companies are among the most consistently successful in the world.

Hamel’s compelling book came in my Christmas stocking and I found myself reading it under the tree (until my children stopped me!). If you read no other business book this year, make it this the one.

So, is your organisation a dictatorship or a democracy?

Until very recently, mine was what you’d call a benign dictatorship. I am quite a nice guy but, in common with most social entrepreneurs, I like my power. I also rate highly my ability to make good decisions. Dictatorship worked OK for a while.

As we grew from an acorn organisation to a sapling, we didn’t seem to suffer for having one person calling all the shots.

But, as we tried to grow further, I was in for a sharp awakening.

Not long after, I learned that a number of our key people didn’t feel fulfilled working for Speaking Up. By contrast, they felt ignored, unrecognised and devalued.

Decisions happened above their heads. They had no involvement in where their own services were going. Things had to change or they would be on their way.

This forced me to ring a few changes. The most important by far was to give much of my own power away.

But this wasn’t some fluffy win-win. Power is finite. To enfranchise others I had to disenfranchise myself.

What did this mean in practice? On a very simple level, it meant I had to stop making all the big calls.

My job as CEO is now to build the capacity of others to make good decisions.

It has also meant renouncing my monopoly on ideas and strategy. I no longer have sole say on what we invest in.

This all feel feels exciting… and not a little uncomfortable. In fact, I can’t say I am totally enjoying it. It leaves me feeling nervous and slightly redundant.

But when I am feeling wobbly, I remind myself that this is the way the most innovative and consistently successful companies in the world are now working To allow Speaking Up to join them, I need to step back.

Different? Yes. Counter-intuitive? Very. But this is 21st century management based on 100 years of learning about people and society.

We now know bureaucracy stops good new things happening and that people only perform when given the freedom to do so. Therefore, like Henry Ford over a century ago, we must manage in step with our times.

And to be fair to the great man, he would have expected nothing less.

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