Over the last years and months I’ve come to believe the biggest problem with HR Strategy and getting results is individual leaders. We know in all companies there are pockets of satisfied, highly motivated, engaged employees who turn out superb work. We also know those are mostly the exceptions. Results and motivation are lost because the good work in one area is cancelled out or sidetracked by what’s going wrong in others. Only a handful of companies have spread engagement thoroughly across their organizations.
We further know that it’s the leader of each unit who makes this happen or not. So I’ve been pursuing the question ‘what’s the problem, why is it so hard to develop enough positive leaders to establish a culture (a set of typical habits) of supportive, innovative leadership across an entire organization?’ We know exactly what behaviors are actually necessary to achieve this and they are things anyone can do, any day, anywhere, if they simply keep them in mind and do them. These can work almost literally by rote if need be. And if you get someone behaving a certain way, their thinking usually changes to match according to psychologists. So why can’t we get leaders giving positive reinforcement, asking for feedback, supporting trial and error and so forth – the keys to great results?
The answer seems to be that we all too easily fall back into ‘natural’ ways of behaving toward others. We find it hard to empathize in most situations (some are far better than others) and without that guide to how another person might feel, we do what first comes to mind – which often means we immediately critique what’s wrong, follow our own instincts without reference to others opinions, etc.
Reading the 2008 autobiography of a US turnaround specialist (The Turnaround Kid by Steve Miller) gives some insight into these problems. He helped Lee Iacocca save Chrysler and then wrote a particularly damning condemnation of Iacocca’s leadership behavior, which he repeats in the book – lack of listening, favoritism, ego-generated strategy blindness and more.
A couple of assignments later he turned around massive construction company, MK, where he followed fired CEO Bill Agee. Bill ‘managed’ MK for his last two years from his Pebble Beach, California mansion, requiring Boise, Idaho head office execs to fly down for ‘instructions.’ Visiting Boise he was known to wear a bullet proof vest for fear of employees and his execs learned to wait a day before implementing his orders because his much younger, controversial wife from a scandal-rocked former work liaison would often convince him to change decisions. Really. You can’t make this stuff up. It’s all on record. But people still hire Bill for management advice. Really.
Miller, a self-styled sensitive manager, despite being a hard-nosed, typical CFO-type by style and training was able to do the right things – most of the time. He did remarkable jobs in numerous situations, including Chrysler and MK, of motivating and aligning large numbers of employees and unions to accept cuts and bankers to take lower rates on loans.
Surprisingly, even he stumbled later when he took on saving Delphi, the near-bankrupt auto parts spin-off of GM, where he promptly put his feet straight into his mouth. He insulted unions and even landscape staff as greedy for accepting on-par pay with the rest of the automotive industry. At the same time he was proposing cuts for them and increases in the C-suite. That’s a far cry from earlier massaging of pay cuts by empathetically pointing out everyone was in the same boat and awarding himself a $1 a year salary. Most recently he’s back (just this summer) to save AIG. It remains to be seen which approach he will take, but the bigger question is how can even a person who knows how to behave effectively suddenly do the reverse and create major problems? Was it just perception or a major glitch? At least we can be sure he has noticed and will rethink.
I’m not sure I have answers, but for HR and organization effectiveness this may be the biggest question of all.