Centralised and control-based organisations are fast losing relevance in a world characterised by globalisation, diversity and a new generations who demand to be involved in your business. This calls for a period of leadership that will disrupt current leadership patterns and lay the foundations for a new leadership era; and irrespective of what the future of leadership may look like, the reality is that the depth of disruption required, and the sustainability and relevance of whatever new era of leadership emerges, it will be founded upon the values of openness, transparency and trust.
I recently heard Jeff Immelt, global CEO of GE, say that you “become a better CEO if you are willing to face into your own mistakes and be prepared to learn from them.” That statement is disruptive in and of itself. It challenges long held beliefs that the more senior you are the more you should know, and that you shouldn’t let the world see the chinks in your armour. It is also a statement that opens the door to two important concepts that underpin Disruptive Leadership; transparency and embracing emergence.
Traditionally, the holding of knowledge represents power. To willingly share knowledge or create an environment where sharing and openness is the norm is therefore scary. For this reason, transparency in leadership, as it is in any part of business, is often considered disruptive; especially in those organisations who have evolved a bureaucratic and rigid culture over a long period of time. At its heart, transparency is disruptive simply because it asks us to bare ourselves to the world and challenges those around us to do the same. Baring ourselves can appear in may forms; perhaps it is a team admitting that it can't deliver, or on a personal level sharing that you are anxious, excited or anything in between. It is about operating on a different dimension; one that creates level playing fields within a team or function, creates trust and opens the door to collaboration. For those leaders who are brave enough, it allows people to see them for who they really are and what they stand for. There is no false wall between them and their people. Remember that people engage equally with hearts and not just minds.
Integrating transparency isn’t without its challenges, least of all understanding the maturity and readiness of your audience for a heightened level of openness. At the same time you can also consider this a ‘chicken and egg’ situation, for without being prepared to share more openly in the first place, how will our people learn how to be open themselves, and take on the same behaviours?
For the Disruptive Leader, the idea of emergence, and that a solution could be created in their team is far more important and exciting than feeling that they should know everything. The Disruptive Leader is always open to their blind spots, and the blind spots of their team, and seeks to create opportunities for stimulation that provide the best conditions for engagement, emergence and performance. The key to making emergence work is ensuring that the team knows the boundaries within which they are working. This is as simple as ensuring everyone is clear on the primary objective of the team, their roles in relation to the primary objective, and the strategic direction and context within which the team is operating. Once everyone is clear on what they are doing and why, your job is to guide the energy in the group and create an environment that extracts the best from your people, individually and collectively. In other words, let them play, take risks and experiment within the context of why they are here, and what they are helping the wider organisation achieve. Maureen Dougherty, Australian and South Pacific CEO of Boeing recently said with regards to optimising research and development (R&D) investment that "R&D is not just about dollars...it is the extent to which we let engineers be courageous and curious and encourage them to try wild ideas." These words bring to life the potency of emergence; especially if those same engineers were clear on the strategic context of their work, the primary objective of their team or function and how their individual roles were contributing to the objectives and strategy.
Disruption with constructive intent will no doubt become a core value for organisations who want to stay fresh and relevant in such a fast paced and highly evolving world. It goes without saying then, that the ability for leaders to embrace disruption and incorporate it into everyday leadership may be the single most important capability and mindset to be developed over the coming years to help drive organisational success and sustainability.
"Ritual is necessary for us to know anything."
- Ken Kesey
The ability to engage in rituals, or create rituals when there are none, is probably one of the most least understood aspects of organisational life and organisational success. Yet it is the thoughtful application of rituals that gives us an unconditional starting point from which to:
The examples below demonstrate the ways in which rituals can be used to contribute to sustainable business relationships and positively impact the way we do our work.
Rituals in On Boarding
Make the important organisational rituals explicit. Normally, we stumble our way through guessing what the accepted rituals may be until we think we have it, or someone is kind enough to steer us in the right direction. From an on boarding perspective, review your processes to see whether you allow for organisational rituals to be easily understood. After all, when we are new to an organisation it is the observing and practice of rituals unique to our new organisation that helps us fit in.
Rituals and Leadership
In leadership, the role of rituals in building employee engagement and healthy relationships can never be underestimated. When getting to know your people, it is often advised to get some one on one time. The one on one meeting process is a good way to start a relationship. Keeping them going, and creating a ritualistic experience is absolutely vital to maintaining individual relationships. In a week things can get hectic and you may not always be available; but if your people know that come rain, hail or shine they have their weekly one on one with you, then you are in a good place. Even little things such as the morning coffee is a ritual that allows for simple connection. Acknowledge that those moments of ritual become cornerstone moments in your leadership relationship. Even in regular small doses, they signal your availability, and allow your team to experience you as a person, and not just their leader.
Rituals and the Expatriate
For the expatriate who is seeking to fit into their adopted country, the role of rituals becomes even more important. By seeking to understand the cultural rituals, the expatriate is able to pick up valuable cues that will aid their assimilation. For example, an American working in France may think that taking lunch with their colleagues isn’t such a big deal, and opt to take lunch at their desk instead. By doing this, they are missing out on an important ritual, one that is sacred for many Latin based cultures. That is; lunch is a social engagement and a means for connecting with colleagues – mostly without discussing work. Then there is the other ritual that follows lunch – taking coffee together. This is where work is discussed, but often with colleagues from other parts of the office. This ritual allows for connection, gossip and sharing of what is ‘really’ happening in the company. Beyond these examples; at the most basic level, the act of seeking to understand and participate in local rituals is a valuable and simple way for the expatriate to build connections quickly. It demonstrates an open-mindedness and a deep level of respect, and in most cases, escalates the assimilation of the expatriate into the new team.
Rituals and Team Building
The best teams often have a number of rituals that they don’t even realise. They are the moments that act like glue and bind the team together. I once led a team that was considered by onlookers as high performing, often punching above their weight, and above all – tight. We were often operating in that place of high trust. When asked about this over the years, my reflections often come back to the fact that we created many ritualistic moments that reflected the heart and soul of rituals – acknowledgment and recognition. We took the time when I joined the team to create many moments of connection that became rituals. Some of them already existed; others we built on. As a team we often took coffee together, and regular morning teas or lunches taken together, celebrated birthdays and other special events in the lives of the team members. Underpinning this were our non-negotiable rituals of one on one meetings and weekly team meetings. Built into our one on ones and team meetings was a sub-ritual of allowing for more personal exchanges and sharing before moving onto business. Individually they may not seem like significant events. Collectively these rituals became a larger element, representative of what it meant to be a member of (and 'belong' to) our team.
Rituals and Mergers & Acquisitions
Another place for the effective integration of rituals is in the M&A process. The ability for the acquiring company to establish rapport quickly with the target company is vital for a harmonious transition; and it is here that rituals can speed up the process of connection and integration. Seeking to understand the existing organisational rituals will provide significant insight as to the culture of the acquired company. The M&A may look great on paper, but if the way cultural rituals are enacted in each company are poles apart then you have something to think about. Remember that rituals are behavioural and driven by a deeper level of collective attitude and values that aren’t so easy to shift. This is more easily seen in cross-cultural M&A’s where the differences are often quite noticeable. In domestic situations it is looking at the subtleties. Does anyone get allocated the best car parks? Do people start early and finish late? Who gets involved early in projects – finance or R&D? Often, factors such as this may be unspoken, but deeply ingrained rituals that give you insight to the differences that may need to be dealt with in the transition period.
The final word
That the creative use of rituals can open the door for such a level of connection shouldn’t be surprising; as a human race we have been engaging in rituals for a long time to help distinguish one group from another and create an unspoken language that helps to define who we are and who we accept. When we engage in rituals different to our own, or what we are used to, it isn’t about compromising our values or ways of doing things. We are however signaling that we are interested in the person or group sitting opposite us. We are acknowledging who they are, what they bring to the relationship, and that we want them to participate in the relationship. At all levels of an organisation, this is beating heart of employee engagement, and business to business success. So why not use it as a thoughtful lever for greater success?
I read often about the idea that the aim of groups is to be able to ‘work together’. In the context of the world today, and what is described as the Participation Age, I wonder if ‘working together’ is enough? My experience is that if we are 'working together' then we are in a state of getting on with the job; doing what needs to be done to meet an outcome. In the past that may have sufficed, however we find ourselves in a position today where increasingly we are seeing transactional and administrative type tasks going the way of self-service and automation. This process is eliminating an important layer of ‘the work’ that we once got on with, and creates a new definition of what it means to get on with the job.
This new foundation layer is more transformational than it is transactional. It means getting on with the job in an era defined by continually changing technologies that influence rapidly shifting business expectations, and with a generation of younger, more world-aware, and ‘instantaneous’ employees. Underpinning this is a business environment where the borders that separate countries are less likely to define business context. Instead, the borders that encompass like minds and shared desires become the new business context. This shift brings with it a whole new set of challenges that redefines what it means to work and to lead.
So, coming back to my initial question…is ‘working together’ enough to ensure organisational success in the Participation Age? I think it’s a good start, though the real goal is to progress to the frame of ‘winning together’. The table below shows some of the key transitions will help an organisation move from Working Together to Winning Together:
Whilst there are not many organisations that could attest to being completely in the frame of Winning Together, when I speak and work with those people who are fortunate enough to be in organisations who lean that way, what I hear in the words they use, and see in the things they do, is a real sense of liberation. They speak of the freedom to experiment and exercise entrepreneurialism within a clearly defined set of boundaries. They speak of leaders who are more interested in feeding and guiding their energy around a task rather than micro-managing the task. Above all, they speak about how they are encouraged to bring themselves to work…not just the part that completes the job. They fully participate in ‘how’ the job is done, and not just that it is done. They therefore have a vested interest in success, and finding ways to be successful; for themselves and for the business.
In addition, when we consider the literature on how to work with Generation Y and those who will follow, we know that ‘working together’ isn’t going to cut it for much longer. Anyone who is currently leading a team of Millennial’s will most likely already be cutting their teeth on the attributes listed in the Winning Together column above.
As we enter the early days of the Participation Age, I’m not sure that merely ‘working together’ will be enough to ensure organisational longevity and success. A 'Winning Together' mindset it seems may be the new non-negotiable basis from which we work and lead.