Lowering The Tide On Leadership

A rising tide raises all boats but has a potentially fatal flaw: It hides hazards when the water line increases. Without the proper knowledge of what needs improvement within their organization, executives often make the same mistake: They raise the water line on their culture, asserting more control not less over those who matter most not least: Their disengaged employees.

While controlling people may resolve a few issues above the surface, engaging employees to help you solve problems which lay below it, provides the most significant leverage towards improving both people and profit — providing you with a tidy return on a minimal investment. It’s one requiring little to no Capex and one that lifts all boats by creating sustainable improvements to KPI’s for customers, employees, and shareholders alike.

So how do you expose these problems? What are the benefits of lowering your organization’s water line? Is it expensive?

No, far from it. But it is excruciating. And for those of us who don’t like change––which is just about all of us, creating regular opportunities for making it sustainable, is hard.

Before the change process begins, however, understanding and communicating what people can expect from that pain can make the difference between long or short term success. Especially for leaders willing to exchange long-term leadership for short-term management, and those swapping out continuous control for continuous improvement.

Management is an activity which exerts control over compliance, while leadership inspires us to bring, give, then go beyond best.

John Perry, my colleague and dear friend, who was a NASA Mathematician, knows what it means to go beyond your best. During the race to space from 1959 to 1969, John, a man whose problem-solving skills and motivational spirit made him well known to many astronauts who stepped foot on the moon––explained the critical difference between what was in leader’s toolboxes versus manager’s, when America’s aim was to get a man on the moon then safely home.

“Managers enforced compliance within a specific set of rules and boundaries, then made sure everyone followed those rules and stayed within the boundaries. Leaders, however, inspired us to bring and give our best every day, breaking down barriers to our individual and operational excellence. Breaking down those barriers made it possible for us to enjoy learning––especially how to first get into space, then to the moon and back. While I may not be able to define leadership, I knew it when I felt it working for NASA during those formative years when I was learning how to do leadership”.

If, as John suggests, people are going to continuously improve and have barriers to their excellence routinely broken down, they must be given opportunities to learn, grow, and develop. And that means leaders must be comfortable lowering the organizational water lines to expose problems which plague quality, people, process, and employee engagement.

Allen Mullaly, a former CEO of Ford Motor Company, did something similar when he took over the reign of Ford, an organization hemorrhaging red. Mullaly sat down with his executives and gave them red and green signs. Green signs indicated there were no problems within areas they had the responsibility to oversee. A red flag indicated there were problems, which Mullaly saw opportunities for improvement rather than criticism.

Mulally went around the board room table, politely asking each executive to raise either a red or green sign when it came time for them to tell their story behind Ford’s iconoclastic failures. During the first go-around, nothing but green signs went up. Executives were asked to go home then come back tomorrow. The dikes were being put up not jackhammered down, and Ford had just finished a year where they lost over two billion dollars.

Finally, after more days of this, a few red signs started appearing throughout the executive boardroom. A few days later, after executives were convinced Mullaly wasn’t going to fire them for breaking down dikes holding back all those organizational problems, red signs all went up. Mullaly then told his team they were “ready” to go to work.

I’ve used the simplicity of Mulally’s red and green sign idea many times to help learn just how screwed up leaders are. This exercise answers critical questions for me while saving lots of time.

Some of the questions it answers include:

1. Should I work on developing leaders before engaging employees whom the leaders serve?

2. How much leadership training and development has taken place throughout this organization? What have the results been to date?

3. Are leaders aware of their personal problems and root causes, not just how to assign them to others within the organization or their own family members? If they aren’t aware of their weaknesses and the root causes of the problems, which is more common for us humans than it isn’t, I’ll bring a set of mirrors into the boardroom, then privately or publicly ask every executive to pick them up to take an in-depth 360 degree look. That lets leaders get a better perspective into the real dike that they’ll need to jackhammer down before even thinking about the hard work required to begin fixing other organizational problems.

I do this 360 exercise with leaders who want to become more aware for one reason: It’s simple and works. As I mentioned before, however, it is far from easy and very painful. Here are a few more things I’ve had to learn to understand, often the hard way.

1. Your businesses’ problems are equivalent to water levels in the ocean. If you are going to make your business a better and more joyful place to work for employees, stop building a dike around employee problems and concerns. Instead, coach your team to frequently jackhammer and break down the dam. Lower tide levels, so issues become visible to everyone but don’t sink your ship. Once that jackhammering process becomes a routine part of your company’s new way of thinking, you’ll be able to start getting some level of engagement from employee’s voices, so they feel and act as if they are heard.

2. When problems occur, first divert the water flowing in, then slowly begin letting water out to expose the root causes of the company’s problems. Once root causes are more visible, identify those problems and which ones have the most leverage.

3. Once you’ve done these two steps, with your executive team, begin categorizing and prioritizing these problems. Some problems will be easy fixes; some will not but will provide the most significant leverage to your customers, your employees, and your shareholders. Focus on finding the root causes and solutions to those problems first.

For me, I’ve learned far more when my organization’s water levels went down, not up. I learned that employees needed serious training yet had none; I learned that my employees were verbally and emotionally abused by managers and other employees and therefore didn’t want to come to work; I learned that our wages were too low and hadn’t been increased in years; I learned that our machines routinely failed when customers needed them not to, and I learned that our organization had no strategy how to continuously improve and grow the business as we increased capacity and dealt with problems.

Frequently lowering the water level within your organization––or even your own life is about improving a journey and those people you meet throughout it.  Leaders learn how to lower the tide to raise it for everyone in or outside the boat.

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Colin D. Baird is an operational turn-around and leadership consultant and the Managing Partner of Five Why Leaders. An organization that provides service to companies in crisis. He is also a consultant to TBM Consulting Group, a global leader in operational excellence with management consultants on four continents. Colin can be reached at colin@5whyleaders.com.