Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Motivation, Engagement, and Leadership

One of the hardest things about my job is maintaining engagement and motivation in my team.

I'm sure many of you are nodding in agreement.  People are the hardest part of any leadership job, and for people like me who rose through the technical ranks people are a whole lot different to engage than routers, switches, servers, and SANs.

I know everyone has a story about the temperamental server that, if ignored, would slowly fail but with a little TLC and a periodic check would run happily forever.  There may even be a lesson inside those experiences.

My CIO is one of those rarefied technology people who can actually give a sense of warmth, closeness, and caring.  You can feel that she sincerely cares about the people around her.  In our staff meetings, we make time to talk about our company and organizational culture; the company's social contract and our perspectives on what the contract is telling us.  A few weeks ago she shared this link with us and asked for our perspective:

Is Your Company Culture Affecting Your Employee Engagement?

I read this article several times, picking up on new ideas both from the article and how companies are following, or not following, the principles presented.  As I thought about this article and looked back on back to presentations from CEOs, I remembered one of Flip Flippen's mantras for The Flippen Group: No organization can rise above the constraints of its leadership.

Employee engagement is inherently limited by the personality of company leadership.  That made me think about some of the ideas I'd heard from CEOs:

"A" people hire "A" people.  "B" people hire "C" people.

This CEO explained their perspective that "A" people were the top-level performers in the organization, the 5% doing 50% of the work.  "B" people were the 9-to-5 workers, the one who punch the clock and get a paycheck, fulfilling and even excelling at their duties but generally not exceeding them.  "C" people were the one barely scraping the minimums of their duties in quantity or quality, resulting in the need for additional work to complete tasks.

The CEO's view was that "A" players wanted to be surrounded by other "A" players, focused on accomplishing goals through whatever investment needed to get there.  "B" players didn't want to be shown up, such they would hire "C" players to ensure they looked good compared to others.  "C" players were of limited to no value.

He coached his leadership team to focus on the "A" people, work to eliminate the "C" people, and limit the influence of the "B" people.

I want my leaders to be aggressive, taking business away from our competition.

This CEO expressed that his ideal leadership team was made up of highly competitive, highly aggressive leaders.  He wanted a leadership team focused on wresting away business from the competition, taking calculated risks to attack the sales positions of competition and gain favorable market share.

This leader made it a point to talk about business ethics, focusing on the need to earn and retain business based on acceptable practices, a point he recognized as necessary given the highly aggressive nature of his team as they used (almost) any means necessary to gain the upper competitive hand.

I want Type A people, self-starters who seize problems and push people to drive them to conclusion.

This CEO explained that Type A personalities were the ones that got things done.  He coached his leadership on how to be Type A, how to identify a Type A player, and how to develop and promote Type A players into leadership positions.  It was his goal to build a team full of Type A people who wouldn't pause in the pursuit of company objectives.

Type B players, by contrast, were needed to do daily work, but the lack of pure drive for accomplishment meant they were best relegated to less senior positions.  The CEO coached his leadership to help develop assertiveness and need for achievement as a requisite for advancement into leadership of the company.

So, to be honest, I'd been affected by each of these presentations.  I let myself be somewhat swept up in their (much better presented) points of view.  Organizations are all about accomplishing goals, achieving new things.  By extension, clearly things like drive, assertiveness, aggressiveness, were the traits that made such possible.

I reflected on myself and others - am I an "A" player?  Are my team "A" players?  Am I aggressive enough?  Am I Type A?

For those of you at home keeping score:
- "A" Player: Not my call, but my leadership consistently says "yes"
- Aggressive: I have a small aggressiveness pool, which I tend to only I feel backed into a corner.
- Type A: No.  I'm a Type B.  One word: reflective.

My CIO sends this article, and I start to think.  29% of workers are actively engaged.  What percentage of the population is an "A person", "Aggressive / Competitive", and "Type A" (or could coach themselves to be close)?

I bet it's less than 29%.

I bet most companies are burning the Type A wick to cover their big productivity needs; a select few companies are figuring out how to unlock the other 71%+.

The comments from those CEOs show how a leader can hold back an organization.  You can't build a team of high-drive, high-aggressive, high completion-oriented people and expect it to stick together.  Such organizations are powder kegs; the explosions can be somewhat directed to rapidly accomplish a goal, but the harm the explosions cause results in those organizations splintering and failing to produce long-term results.

Start-ups are a great example.  Sudden bang, then wholesale replacement of staff and leadership to turn rapid initial progress into long-term value.  Failure to bring in long-term, sustainable staff will reduce value to the point of either company failure or acquisition for intellectual property rather than inherent value.

No one wants to buy a company that relies solely on overworking and stressing staff to accomplish its goals.

Life is a marathon, not a sprint.  So it is, or should be, in business.  Sprints may deliver an initial victory - assuming the finish line is close enough - but the marathon runner will ultimately surpass the sprinter's accomplishments and deliver victories over and over again.

The article made me realize that the long-term success of a company really comes down to the diversity of its leadership, a diversity that must be as broad as the people who work for that leadership.  Each employee needs different treatment and handling to coax the best out of each of them, and only complete appreciation and understanding will accomplish that goal.

So what does this mean?

The value of an individual is not based on easy-to-define categories.  There's no single magic formula for a high-performance team, or a high-performance individual - because there's no single formula for a person or team who can transform to be high performance.

The magic is awareness.  Be aware of the strengths and limitations of each employee.  Be aware of what motivates each employee.  Be aware of how each employee reacts and responds to work, life, and circumstance.

Be aware of how your statements and actions influence your employees; in other words, be aware of how your leadership may be inhibiting the growth and future of your employees.

Stay engaged with your team.  Build a means to communicate.  Use that opportunity to give feedback, good and constructive.  Use each individual's strengths to help them grow, adapt to manage their vulnerabilities to limit their impact on the future.

And don't be part of their problem.  No organization can rise above the constraints of its leader, and no member of a team can rise above the constraints of their organization.

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