Why it is time to let staff drive business leadership

Tim Taylor discusses why encouraging staff to bring their own values to your business can reap rewards.

Business leadership at the moment is on the cusp of a breakthrough. Old leadership models are crumbling and the signs are clear; commentators such as Bersin Deloitte and Bain & Co have been providing data that shows leadership development is in a crisis.

A recent report showed that 35 per cent of participants consider their organisation’s success in identifying and developing leaders as ‘above average’ or ‘excellent’. The same report polled the percentage of leaders in their organisation who display certain critical leadership behaviours. The authors were concerned that no more than 60 per cent were thought to exhibit these ‘critical’ behaviours. The question that they didn’t ask: are the supposed ‘critical’ behaviours relevant for every company?

Should the question not be: what are the critical behaviours for leaders in this organisation at this time?

It seems to me that each business is unique and where we, in the leadership development industry, have been going wrong is to treat the problem as it could be solved with a ‘penicillin’ approach.

Antibiotics have saved millions from bacterial infections, but don’t work on viral infections. Our own immune systems deal with most viral attacks, and where that doesn’t work we need to find a specific antiviral.

This is why the conclusion that off-the-shelf programme is the solution is fundamentally flawed.

Lessons from Zappos on what not to do

Too many companies think it is as simple as copying a highly visible exemplar such as Zappos or Google. Zappos’ headline-grabbing recruitment policies are innovative and work for them. This is not to say that it will work in your company, because this strategy is part of a longer story. What you should think about copying is the development journey. The Zappos team was searching for the recipe to make for the kind of company they wanted to work in. There are many lessons to learned from Zappos, but they will not be learned by copying the solutions it came up with, they will be learned from empowering your team to find recipe that creates the company they want to work in.

In the same way, copying Google’s ‘time-out to work on cool stuff’ is a part of the Google culture and taking it out of this specific context in will not create the next big innovation that your company is seeking. In fact, it will more likely cost you and create unexpected negative results.

What airlines tell us about different leadership approaches

The specific context is the combination of culture, vision, challenge and the people.

Most airlines are made up of websites, tickets, airports, check-in desks, airplanes, seats, food, movies, and of course staff. Yet the experiences they deliver differ greatly because of their culture, their leadership’s vision, their response to the challenge of running an airline and the choices they make around people.

When an airline figures out how to deliver a consistently good experience it is generally as a result of a journey of transformation and not a one-off gimmick.

Where to start the journey

Begin by trusting every employee that works for you. People, fundamentally, want to do a good job. Having asked thousands of managers across every continent, I have learned that trust, openness, honesty and integrity are universal values inside professional businesses.

Values are not something for employees to follow, that should be handed down by management. Rather values are an agreement that employees make about how they will work together. They are created through a process of discussion and discovery. When employees own the values you no longer have major engagement challenges and productivity will rise because you take this first step on the journey to building your company’s or department’s unique story.

What can you do as a manager to start your journey?

1. Recognise that your people have come to work with their own values.

2. Sit your team down around a table and get them to put pen to paper.

3. Ask them to write their core values: Allow them to tell you and their teammates what their values mean to them and what they look like in action.

4. Ensure the space is safe and that everyone listens to each other without arguing.

In my experience most people have huge overlaps and use the same words to describe slightly different things. In the final analysis your team will learn about each other and their respect for each other will deepen as they find their genuine common ground.

This simple process of allowing staff to state their own values makes them feel important, allows them to emotionally connect to the values they’re sharing, and a sense of connection/community with fellow co workers. What will transpire is that these values will match and align to the company’s; however this is the process by which they need to be brought together.

Tim Taylor is managing director of Making Great Leaders.

Further reading on leadership development

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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