Foster individual leadership to build productivity

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Working parents have a lot on their plate. A child for one in no small feat. A career, partner, extended family as well as social and community commitments to juggle can mean creating a work-life balance may seem an elusive and abstract concept.

Why then, is fostering leadership amongst this group of busy balances a good idea for organisations? Why would adding another ball to the juggling mix boost rather than hinder a parent’s (and indeed any employee’s) productivity?

Let’s turn to Google’s Senior Vice President of People Relations for a clue…

“Personally, I believe this culture is an insight about the human condition. People look for meaning in their work. People want to know what’s happening in their environment. People want to have some ability to shape that environment. As a result, Google has cultivated a creative and passionate workforce that holds the key to the company’s innovation.” Laszlo Bock.

The take home message here is people want to feel they have the power to shape their environment and when they do they create thriving work cultures. People are more likely to feel empowered when they have a sense of purpose, are self-reliant and have access to the tools and infrastructures that support choices in the context of their role.

Being a leader (in the context of their role) means the juggling parent is more likely to be motivated to put focused energy and passion into their work rather than working simply to get a pay check and return home to their family.

So how can an organisation make the changes to activate a culture of individual leadership in order to build productivity?

For this we look to a recent HR Daily article…

Workplace teams are meant to pool the individual abilities of employees to tackle challenges, but often end up simply comprising a supervisor trying to get a silent team to produce, according to management consultant and author Stewart Liff.

The answer is to create an environment where everyone is a leader, says Liff in A Team of Leaders, which he co-authored with another management consultant, Paul Gustavson.

This means an environment where people not only work together but assume ownership of the outcomes, deal head-on with difficult issues and feel accountable, Liff says. It is one where members not only feel more excited and fulfilled, but also produce better work. And it is an environment that a lot of workplaces have already achieved.

Many of the challenges that come about in modern workplaces are the result of a traditional and outdated work structure, Liff says.

“That structure involves units or teams of people supervised by one individual who is over his head,” he says. “To make matters worse, this structure is typically supported by a series of management systems and processes that are designed to maintain that relationship and unintentionally keep you and others from becoming a leader.”

The solution Liff and Gustavson propose is a five-stage team development model, which brings a team from a situation where the leader interacts with each member one on one, to the final stage where the team essentially manages itself. The supervisor’s time is then freed up to work in other areas that make better use of his or her talents.

“Your relationship with the team would be very different,” Liff says. “Instead of being a traditional supervisor who manages people on a one-on-one basis, you would teach the team members how to handle these issues and be available to assist them as needed.

“Perhaps most important, instead of pushing and cajoling a disparate group of individuals to work on the team’s goals and objectives, you will be working with energetic and motivated individuals who are leaders in their own right, and who will only occasionally turn to you for help in order to take them to the next level.”

The situation would also be advantageous to team members, Liff says, because they will feel more valued and hold each other accountable instead of fearing the supervisor’s proverbial whip. They will also set and work towards their own goals rather than feeling out of step with the expectations imposed on them from above. They will enjoy a stronger social network. And they will probably return home happier to their families.

The General Electric model

Liff gives the example of the General Electric plant in Durham, North Carolina, which does the final assembly for the GE90 and CF34 jet engines. The entire plant has more than 300 employees but only one boss – the plant manager. This manager sits in an open cubicle in the middle of the floor.

Pay is transparent, and the workplace is divided into teams that own an engine from start to finish. The plant has no time clock, so team members can handle personal matters when they need to. The teams decide for themselves how to manage the work, how to manage time off, how to improve their systems and work processes, and how to deal with problematic teammates. Their work, Liff says, is varied and interesting from day to day.

“As you might expect, everyone does not successfully fit into this environment,” Liff says, “especially ‘people who expect to take orders'”. That is because the plant was designed to be operated by teams of leaders.

“The people in the Durham plant are clearly engaged, have high energy, possess multiple skills, and are very motivated. In addition, they take tremendous pride in their team and the work they perform. More important, the plant’s performance has continued to excel and it is considered by many to be an industry leader. All of this did not occur simply by magic.

“Oh, and by the way, when the GE plant first started out on its transformation effort, the plant had 175 employees. Since then, the workforce has virtually doubled and GE continues to invest in the plant.”

Re-designing the workforce

The problem lies in the way workplaces are designed, Liff says. If a team is designed to operate under an “all-knowing and all-controlling” supervisor, members of that team will react accordingly.

They will be over-reliant on the supervisor, be afraid to exercise independent judgement, not show much initiative and be mere followers. If little information is shared, they won’t understand what value they contribute or the results they bring. The supervisor will also probably work to the point of exhaustion.

Re-designing the workplace will take time but will ultimately pay off, Liff says.

Some design guidelines outlined in the book include:

  • Mission – teams need an energising, simple, concise and supportive statement that identifies their reason for being;
  • Outcomes – teams agree to be measured against criteria including customer satisfaction ratios, returns on investment and the prevailing public view of the company as a valuable member of the community;
  • Culture and knowledge – people in the team agree to share their mission and goals, be open and honest, take risks to make the vision a reality, be multiskilled and flexible, and be accountable for their own actions;
  • Business processes – jobs are designed to be meaningful, people are given the information and tools they need to do their jobs properly, and systems or tasks that do not add value are eliminated;
  • People systems – the selection system is based on having people demonstrate their competency in technical, social and business skills and their potential for leadership. All people receive sufficient training to do their jobs and keep their skills and knowledge current through their careers. And all have the opportunity to acquire multiple skills through education, training and lateral movement;
  • Reward system – individuals are rewarded for their contributions to team and company goals, and rewards reinforce desired behaviours instead of punishing undesirable ones; and
  • Design choices – design choices are periodically reviewed, and renewal is everyone’s responsibility.


Source: HR Daily

Originally published: 5 May 2014


Forbes, Google’s Secrets Of Innovation: Empowering Its Employees, viewed 12.5.2014