The Investment-Based Leader’s Toolbox

Screenshot 2014-06-23 21.43.39Leaders in any organization give a vigorous “me too” when they hear the adage “our people are our greatest asset.” It’s the right answer! Yes, we value our employees, want to see them succeed, and hope that they’re happy in their jobs. But often the reality is not so positive. Several surveys have been done in the past couple of yeas measuring employee engagement. The sobering truth is that employees are disengaged because what leaders say and what they do is in disalignment.

The good news is that

When trust, values and a purpose-driven mission exist to a statistically significant degree and guide leadership, decision-making and behavior, these “enablers” give rise to a highly inspired group of super-engaged employees. (Forbes, September 2012)

The question, then, is how do we communicate and develop trust, values and purpose?

The answer is by investing in your greatest asset; the cornerstone of your organization. The toolbox for investment-based leadership will get you on the right track.

Trust starts with sincerity. Employees sense when a manager is just going through the motions. So before you pull any of the tools out of the toolbox, it’s important to consider you motives and attitude. Do you really want to invest in your employees not just because it may lead to higher productivity, greater sales, or other bottom-line reasons, but because it’s the right thing to do? Yes, you can invest because of what you’ll get out of it, but you’re putting a cap on potential.

A true investment in your employees means you have more altruistic motivations. You want to see them succeed because you care about them as individuals. You want them to grow, find meaning and purpose in their work, and set their own goals because that’s what every human being wants. We have to stop viewing employees as a means to an end and see them for the unique souls that they are.

Once you’ve committed to a true investment in your employees, the following tools will assist you in building a workforce that is engaged, committed, and eager to help you succeed.

Transformational Mindset:

According to an article in Psychology Today, transformational leadership

Originally focused on leaders who “transform” groups or organizations, transformational leaders focus on followers, motivating them to high levels of performance, and in the process, help followers develop their own leadership potential.

I believe this is where leaders need to start. Transformational leadership is a mindset and an attitude that puts leaders in the right frame of mind to motivate followers. In the words of Ronald E. Riggio, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College:

Transformational leaders hold positive expectations for followers, believing that they can do their best. As a result, they inspire, empower, and stimulate followers to exceed normal levels of performance. AND, transformational leaders focus on and care about followers and their personal needs and development.

Servant leadership takes transformational leadership to an even more altruistic level, emphasizing the leader’s obligation to serve followers simply because it’s the right thing to do, not for what outcomes can be generated by focusing on follower needs.

When a leader is able to focus on others and look for ways to develop and motivate them, engagement and productivity are sure to follow. It requires that a leader put their ego aside and not assume they have all the answers. Transformational leaders know that a better organization is built when individuals are empowered and have regular opportunities to engage their brains as well as their hearts.

Appreciative Inquiry:

It is said that words create worlds. The direction of our questions determines where our conversation goes, so what we ask questions about, how we phrase our questions, and what our purpose is in asking questions leads us in a certain direction.

For a leader, asking questions that lead toward positive outcomes and a thriving culture is a core responsibility. But because we are so habitually focused on problem solving and discovering what is broken, our organizational dialogue is mired in deficit-based language.

The Appreciative Inquiry 4-D cycle of Discover, Dream, Design, and Destiny provides a framework for leaders and organizations to direct the conversation toward more positive ends while tapping into the knowledge, strengths, and passions of the whole.

Start by reading Appreciative Leadership by Whitney, Rader & Trosten-Bloom. This is a practice guide to infusing your leadership with appreciative tools that draw out the best in your employees and organization to move you toward your desired future through collaboration and leveraging strengths.

Positive Deviance:

Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) grew out of the positive psychology movement started by Martin Seligman. The central idea behind POS is to identify those characteristics and behaviors that enable organizations to thrive and build cultures that reinforce these positive traits. The University of Michigan Center for Positive Organizations is a great resource, providing white papers, research, and other tools.

Positive Deviance (PD) is a concept that fits into the POS frame, building on the idea that within any organization there are individuals and groups who, with essentially the same circumstances and resources, have found a way to succeed where others are stuck.

PD has been used for years in the nonprofit and healthcare sectors, but has been slow to catch on in the marketplace, where the need for control and predictability get in the way of allowing deviants – either positive or negative – to forge new paths to solve problems.

But a surge of entrepreneurship may make the marketplace more open to experimentation and renegade solutions. PD believes that the solutions are within the context of our organizations, it simply requires that we give people the freedom to pursue unproven or counter-culture methods to fix things that have so far proven unfixable.

Strengths Focus:

Finally, in my investment-based toolbox I want to focus on the strengths of each individual on my team. We have a tradition of looking for the weaknesses in ourselves and our direct reports so that we can improve those deficiencies. But research, primarily from Gallup and former Gallup researcher Marcus Buckingham, has shown that most of us will never be able to turn our weaknesses into strengths. Instead, we should focus on those things we do uncommonly well and make them even stronger.

Leaders need to help followers identify their strengths, either through one of the strengths assessments on the market, or through an organic process of observation and dialogue. Once you know the strengths of each team member you can look for ways to organize and structure your team and the work that they do.

To really get the most out of a strengths –based approach is to develop a more flexible approach to job descriptions and work assignments. According to Gallup, when employees have an opportunity to use their strengths every day they are more than six times more engaged in their work.

Making the Investment in People

There are certainly more tools that an investment-based leader should have in their toolbox, but the ones I’ve outlined above will get you started on the right path. One thing to remember when committing to an investment-based approach is that there is no formula; the key is in using the tools in the context of your organization and the makeup of your team.

It’s also important to understand that it takes time to allow your investment to grow. Your staff may be suspicious as you begin to incorporate new methods of leading, especially if you’re making drastic changes in your leadership style. It may require some trust-building and patience, including patience with yourself as you try out new approaches.

Read my previous post: Investment-Based Performance Improvement. It introduces the characteristics of an investment-based approach – humility, humor, harmony, and honor. Using these four characteristics with a transformational mindset, appreciative inquiry, positive deviance, and a strengths focus will demonstrate to your staff that you are committed to their success and value their collaboration.

      

 

Rethinking Job Descriptions

A Useful Tool Gone Bad?

There’s little doubt that some sort of job description is important. They help organizations articulate the purpose of a position and how the work is to be accomplished. They spell out the competencies, experience, and other requirements necessary to succeed, and give the person doing that job a sense of what they should be focusing on.

For some, a job description identifies the boundaries of a position. Individuals like to know what they should and should not do, and like to be able to say, “it’s not my job.” Employers, of course, have gotten around this boxing in by adding the ubiquitous phrase, “and other duties as assigned.”

Thinking Upside Down – Person First, Then Description

But what if employers flipped job descriptions on their heads? What if, instead of using these expedient documents to create an exhaustive list of tasks, duties and responsibilities, job descriptions became generalized documents that allow for interpretation based on individual strengths and organizational needs?

Human Resources professionals like to create standardized, documented procedures to reduce variability and mitigate risk. That way we can keep people accountable and easily address deviance from the norm through our structured disciplinary processes.

But this obsession with conformity and repeatability has a serious negative consequence: it squashes the creativity and resourcefulness of employees and fails to tap into their unique strengths and interests.

When we attempt to turn an individual into a walking embodiment of their job description, we lose the advantage of the whole person. The whole person may not be a perfect fit for the job description, but if we exchange rigidity with flexibility, the whole person will rise to the occasion and surpass any goals of a job description.

It’s a scary thing to let go of structure. We like to predict outcomes by identifying the right inputs. The good news is we don’t have to completely eliminate structure to create a culture where people are allowed to apply a greater percentage of their abilities, ideas, and strengths.

As our workplaces evolve and adapt to new realities, new understandings, new ways of getting things done, employers have to tap into the vast reserves of wisdom, innovation, and productivity that go to waste every day because we have limited people through our processes and practices.

Designing Your Provocative Career Path

A few years ago I volunteered at a community Career Center. Many of the clients had been in their positions, or at least with the same company, for 15-20 years or more. Then something changed and they found themselves unemployed or laid off, dazed and confused in a land they hadn’t prepared for. There were office workers who didn’t keep up with automated office technologies, computer programmers who didn’t see the end of the mainframe coming, and laborers who didn’t see their skills becoming obsolete before their eyes. They were devestated, which is an understandable response to job loss, but unable to wrap their minds around the changes their new reality would require. Those who learn to proactively design their careers will have a much easier time adapting when change happens.

Another interesting thing I noticed as I counselled Career Center clients is that it is really difficult for most of us to define our vocations apart from job descriptions. Try it. When someone asks you what you do, is your immediate response to give your current job title? I’m a blah-blah-blah for so-and-so. So what!? What does that tell me about who you are and what you do? In order to have agility amid rapid change, we need to rethink the way we define who we are. That way, if our current position goes away or morphs into something else, we are prepared to adapt.

Most of us won’t land in our dream job by going with the flow. We have to take control of the rudder as we navigate the seas of the marketplace or we’ll end up on a shore we didn’t really want to be on. To have fulfillment & significance, we must create the future we desire using what we learned about ourselves in our Discovery and Dream exercises.

In Design we move from “What” to “How,” putting our career strategy together and identifying what training, formal education, network connections and vocational stepping stones will get us from here to there.  While the Dream phase allows us to have our head in the clouds, the Design phase keeps our feet planted on the ground of reality. Not that we discount our dreams, but we realize dreams don’t become reality overnight and they require a lot of work to make them real.

One activity that’s part of Cooperrider’s AI Design model is writing provocative propositions. As you identify the themes and strengths that make you who you are, write out what is most important to you. What are the key ingredients to your desired future and what process will pull everything together? Paraphrasing Cooperrider’s idea of what provocative propositions look like, they should

                …stretch, challenge and interrupt the status quo

                …be grounded in reality – have possibility

                …be stated in affirmative and bold terms

                …be confirmed by those closest to you

Provocative propositions provide a clear, shared vision for…[your] destiny. (Cooperrider)

As you work on the Design of your career plan, be positive and courageous. You’ve come this far – don’t give up. Yes, it’s hard and possibly overwhelming if you have decided to take a new direction. But embrace a long-term perspective and see the months or years of preparation as brief as you move toward greater satisfaction and purpose in your work. Have fun with it!

The Peter Principle Revisited

In The Peter Principle, author Laurence Peter describes a common occurrence in many organizations – people rise (or get promoted) to their level of incompetence. They do well in a position, whether operating equipment,  completing administrative tasks, or selling in a retail store. As a reward for their exceptional performance in that position they are moved up to the next level, usually some sort of leadership or management position.  Individuals in search of advancement apply for, and sometimes win, jobs they are not truly qualified for. I’ve seen it time and time again in every type of organization and the results are a serious problem in the organization. Not only is there the loss of efficiency, but the frustration and stress on both sides of the equation creates an atmosphere of paranoia and firefighting. When incompetence abounds due to bad hiring & promotion decisions employee engagement takes a big hit and chaos abounds as management works to clean up messes and keep employees focused and motivated.  

The wise organization takes an intentional approach to developing a career path for individuals. Understanding competencies, strengths and talents allows individuals and companies to prevent the Peter Principle from happening. Job descriptions get a bad rap, and many are poorly written, but when done right they can be used to ensure people do not rise or get promoted to their level of incompetence, but rather find where they have the greatest strength and talent and align their job responsiblities accordingly. Once someone is in a position where they cannot perform well, the emotional and productivity toll is hard to overcome.