The most important people in your organization

As the science of organizational behavior continues to grow with more analyses, cases and hypotheses, I wanted to add my own small contribution to the mix. I have worked and experienced first-hand how global businesses operate for over a decade, from small R&D start-ups to large scale multinationals. During that time industries have changed, technologies evolved and practices advanced, increasing the complexity of running a highly skilled workforce and operation. And as the challenges and problems amassed, the simple solutions, in my mind, have always started with us, humans.


As I often recite during any public presentation, until we are all fitted with microchips that will direct our actions, auto-connect us to the world and let data make sound decisions for us, organization are still based on a single cornerstone, human behavior. They have been created for humans by humans. They are a human phenomena. And while this insight may not appear to be groundbreaking, it still eludes many well respected, competent and superbly smart individuals in multiple levels across global organizations.


For the sheer difference between successfully run organizations and the ones struggling comes down to the ability of its leaders to instill their vision into its various layers of leaders and managers in the company, empowering them to carry out the tasks required to achieve it. For an effectively aligned organization that puts the right working culture in place, can create value faster to the end users and ultimately its shareholders. Otherwise, you end up with diverse, talented and skilled employees pulling the organization in different directions like a multi-rope tug of war. Even the best talented group in the world needs some degree of direction and leadership.


And there I mentioned it. Culture. The term has recently become more common in business writing almost to the extent BigData has. And for good reasons. Culture represents the social and behavioural norms within a company that are acceptable and predominantly followed by its employees. What are the key principles the organization values the most. Where does the org balance between the business tensions found in corporations these days. Does it promote full-on entrepreneurship versus a centralized corporate control?  Is there trust and empowerment or are employees being micro-managed?  Does it practice what it preaches or is there a chasm between communication and practice?


The most important people that will determine all of this sit right down bang in the middle. Lower than the comfortably sitting C-Level executives but higher than the vast majority of employees and individual contributors that make up roughly 70% of the org.  These are the people that will welcome  new hires to the company and provide them with company’s vision, mission and values. They will motivate the troops towards a shared purpose,  push the boundaries of engineers to achieve the next disruption, and will maturely collaborate with other mid managers and brainstorm the best ideas for their company’s future. They are the ones that live the culture, in practice, every day of their working life and their behavior is closely followed by their directs and colleagues, giving it a significant ripple effect.

With that in mind, knowing who to hire and appoint for these positions is extremely important and should be handled with care. While tenure, past experience, big brand names and IQ are important. EQ, or emotional intelligence, is by far the most important ingredient. As was mentioned above, it is with people we do business with, and our ability to empathize and understand our employees is equally important as empathizing with our potential users and customers. For many people can become a manager; assigning tasks, reviewing performance and following managerial protocol. However, not many possess the leadership values required for the 21st century task force. Ones that empower, guide, coach and influence employees and colleagues with guided passion and reason as opposed to authority and titles.


This task becomes increasingly challenging with scale. In large organization, many times your direct manager becomes your whole world. Solely determining  your promotion, deciding on what you’ll be working on and who you’ll be working with, managing your digital reputation in the company and with that your potential future in it. If you’re lucky and you have a leader as a manager, that framework can work and benefit you. If you’re not, then despite having the skills, experience and impact, your destiny in the company may have been set. Sure, you can move roles, functions or managers but that can be cumbersome and even stressful for some people. What many employees eventually do is wait it out (usually 18 months) and try to apply elsewhere in the organization for a better role and manager. While that sometimes works, in many cases the previous poor relationship comes back to haunt them when applying for a new role and they find themselves leaving the company. A huge potential can be lost if not dealt with properly.


In addition, as a people manager, the organization adds an administrative layer on you. Performance reviews, calibrations, and weekly 1:1 development conversations are but a few examples. And while the motivation behind these activities is to promote great leaders across the org, these manager’s manual approach can serve quite the opposite. The good leaders who naturally follow these principles without a guide would lose interest, in a similar fashion that innovators lose interest when being told how to work or innovate. The bad leaders will actually follow these tasks closely and use these protocols to safeguard them from being exposed as poor leaders. A lose-lose situation.

So can leadership be taught? To a degree I would say yes. But due to the fact that the way we lead people has very much to do with our own personal behaviours and attitude, that can only work in a fairly simple day to day operation, where uncertainty is pretty certain. When things get more complex and pressured, managers will tend to lean on their basic instincts and elementary behaviour as opposed to what the leadership course taught them. As the Chief Strategy Office of a betting company in the UK, a former British Army Captain, said : “when the bullets starts flying, people will revert back to the basic, simple behaviour they remember”. You can’t get any more basic than your own basic instincts.


So when looking for a new leader to the team look for the people’s skills in addition to the profession expertise. Can they listen? Do they seek counsel and advice from their colleagues or subordinates? Do they manage down as well as up? Are they open minded and able to change direction? Can they gain the trust and credibility from multiple stakeholders without compromising their professional and personal integrity? Do they always strive to do the right thing for the company? Do they truly represent the company’s culture?

Too many misses on this activity and you will risk slowly diluting your company’s culture. Forcing its true protectors and leaders out and leaving in the managerial types who follow protocol, add bureaucracy and adore hierarchy.

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