Leadership and Creating a Winning Organization

Polls over the years in organizations as well as government show that the majority of people do not particularly trust those who lead. Last year, a Forbes article provided data telling us that there are very low levels of employee engagement in the US and worldwide. Executive tenure has been dropping for years (although the last couple years that seems to be reversing – too soon to tell). Research tells us that companies that own leadership development programs rarely produce leaders for the company.

What all these Ted talks and leadership books seem to have in common is some homily that is supposed to serve to frame our actions. When I get to the office or, more importantly, in front of clients, none of that information gives me practical solutions to organizational challenges. What we need are answers and practical action we know will work – a roadmap or an action plan that allows us to start making things better right now.

People don’t follow leaders they distrust. Worse, they may resist or even sabotage them. Most people don’t really work for companies. They work for the people they see and talk to every day. There are so many very practical things that can be done to make a company outstanding, and yet it is the exceptional company that actually does it.

One of my first and perhaps most important leadership books was Douglas McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise published in 1960. It is still standard reading in business literature and organizational psychology. McGregor was a famous social psychologist, and his theories have been tested and proven over and over again to the point where there is really no room for debate, which should be good news to most organizations. He stresses such notions as:

  • Most people need and want to work as much as they need and want to play.
  • Most people will apply self-control and self-direction in the pursuit of organizational objectives, without external control or the threat of punishment.
  • Commitment to objectives is a function of rewards associated with their achievement.
  • People usually accept and often seek responsibility. They want to be valued by doing work they experience as valuable.
  • The capacity to use a high degree of imagination, ingenuity and creativity in solving organizational problems is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.
  • In industry, the intellectual potential of the average person is usually under-valued and under-utilized.

So, if you want a winning organization, what do you do with this? Well, lots of things, but to start:

  1. Look for ways to flatten the organization. Company hierarchies invariably filter the very information leaders need to know because no one wants to be the messenger. They lead to lots of administration and loads of, which take on a life of their own and contribute little to productivity.
  2. Push decision-making authority to people who actually do the job and hold them accountable.
  3. Take a good look at the rewards systems in your company. Do people get paid for helping to achieve company goals? Does success fully relate to reward? Is the performance assessment system counter-productive?
  4. Create continuous improvement systems. Is your organization focused on compliance rather than ingenuity in the workplace? Don’t be the Chief Problem Solver. Ask the people who do the work what would represent real improvement.

There are very tried and true practical ways to do this, but most of your competitors don’t do them. Implement continuous improvement strategies, reward creativity, attack unnecessary hierarchy and bureaucracy, create peer-directed work teams and automate redundant tasks. The primary reason for not doing these things is because that’s not how we did them in the past. But we know beyond any doubt that these things work.

Ultimately, high-quality products, services and organizations cost less than low-quality ones. Engaged workers are not merely more effective. They are exponentially more effective. They don’t just improve sales or reduce costs. They improve them radically. Best of all, most of these things represent comparatively modest investments and usually wind up reducing costs of operation.