Sunday, July 30, 2017

Why Did We Come to Work?

Do you work for a big company? If so, try this: The next time you attend a meeting, ask yourself whether you can tell what business you are in by the content of the meeting. Is there any connection between what is being talked about in the meeting and the actual customers of the business? If not – and often there is no connection – look around the table. Does anyone in the room, you included, know a customer? If not, do you at least know someone who knows a customer? It may come as a shock, but most people in big companies do not interact with customers. After all, as a company grows, the number of relationships inside the company increases much faster than the number of customer-contact positions. This mathematical fact is akin to the "square-cube" law first observed by Galileo (albeit not talking about companies). And this fact leads to a problem: Most of us do not know why we go to work.

When you work directly with customers, you know why you go to work. That is the case for people in small companies, or for salespeople in big companies. But for the rest of us – those who do not deal directly with customers – why do we work? You can probably answer the small “why?” question. Maybe you help run the information technology system that the company uses to keep track of its people. That’s important. We can’t get paid without your work on the IT system. That is the small “why” question and it is usually easy to answer.  But try answering the big “why?” question. If you quit today, would the mission of the company be harmed? Why does your work matter, really matter, for the company? This question is very hard to answer for most people in big organizations, since they are so removed from the customer. They know why they come to work, but they don’t know why that work matters.

Unable to answer the big “why?” we end up instead measuring things that we do, in an attempt to show that our work matters. This leads to various maladies, such as calling a lot of meetings. We want to make progress, so we call a meeting. Because meetings are measurable, and attendance at meetings also is measurable, calling meetings is a way to feel like something is getting done. Did you go to the meeting? You can’t make the meeting!? Were you invited to the meeting? Even our calendar software is designed to enable meetings, allowing us to see when others do not yet have a meeting. Maybe we’ll set up a regular weekly meeting, or even a daily meeting. But why? Odds are, you have sometimes missed a meeting, or wished you could miss a meeting, because you wanted to actually get work done. Yet your absence would be measured, so you go. Of course, meetings can be useful; but in big organizations far too many meetings are called, since they are a measurable substitute for knowing the big “why?”


Enter strategy. A good strategy lays out the logic behind why a company exists, and so is a tool for leaders to help their people understand why they come to work. A useful strategy makes clear the link between what people do at work and what the organization is trying to get done. Do you tell a technician that they need to come in this weekend, and leave it at that? It would be better to add a small explanation. Explain why. How is that person’s work connected to the organization’s reason for existence? Perhaps the technician needs to come in because their support will enable an engineer to serve a customer. Although the customer will never know the technician, the technician should at least know how her work was important. Strategy is how leaders help their people know why they come to work.


For more on strategy as sensemaking, see the work of Professor Sarah Kaplan.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Honorable Leadership

The water was on fire. A Japanese "zero" had just struck the ship, water was flowing over the railings, and above the roar of the explosion he could hear the screams of men in the water. He did not hesitate. Later he would recall figuring that the burning fuel was probably only on the surface of the water. So he dove into the flaming South Pacific. One-by-one he hauled the injured men back onto the boat. He would not remember how many he saved.

When we think of honor, often what comes to mind are great leaders like this man, my father Burton Barnett, who would later be decorated with the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart for his service as a radio operator with the Amphibious Corps - a unit within the US Army that was deployed alongside the Marines as they landed on islands during World War II.

But this image neglects a more common, if mundane, form of honor. I refer to those who show leadership every day by living up to the duty implied by their office: the school principal helping one of his teachers with a difficult student; the general manager of a cement plant fulfilling a promise made years before to residents near the factory; the scientist supporting one of her postdocs whose experiments just failed. Honorable leadership includes these seemingly small moments too. By living up to our duty during such moments, we make real our promises and show that a person's word has meaning.

Seen this way, my father's greatest leadership challenge may have come years after the war, and involved honorable actions that would never be acknowledged with a medal. As a supervisor with what we then called "the phone company," he was ordered to lay off dozens of workers during the computerization of the American phone system. The cuts hit hard and fast, with thousands laid off systemwide - most with little warning, just a pink slip appearing one day at work. But not for my father's workers. He met with them individually, looked each one in the eye, and explained as best he could why the layoff was happening and how he and the company would try to help them through the job loss. Returning home each day he was quiet and subdued - not his normal upbeat self. Living up to one's duty can be difficult.

It seems we cringe every day when reading the news, learning of yet another example of juvenile behavior by so-called leaders who do not deserve the title of their office. These pretenders disrespect their workers, commit crimes, and act in self-interest in violation of their duty. They wrongly think that leadership bestows entitlement. To the contrary, leadership implies duty, and honorable leadership occurs only when we live up to that duty. Thankfully, we still have the many quiet heroes of everyday life - those who understand the calling of honorable leadership, quietly living up to their duty each day.


Sociologist Philip Selznick developed the idea of "institutional leadership" connected to creating and exemplifying the values of an organization in his seminal book Leadership in Administration.