This is the book a friend gave me a while back and I thought I’d better read it before I start my new job. I pulled a few tidbits out of it that I may try to use, but it was largely something that seemed written for a different environment than the one I find myself in, or which was trying to communicate universal and important truths that I already know. Its overall message is that leaders should be managers of systems and not managers of people. It encourages the view that everything that goes wrong in an organization is a result of a broken system, not of broken people, and that as such, things like performance incentives and evaluations are outdated and counterproductive techniques. The book ends conveniently with “The 47 Habits of Pretty Good Leaders,” which is a summary of the advice the book offers to leaders. Here are the ones I’ll try to retain:
4. Leaders need to understand the organization systemically: clearly understanding the purpose of any undertaking, then understanding the interactions and interdependencies between the parts that result either in the achievement of in the failure to achieve that purpose. All output, desired or undesired, is the net result of the system and its interactions (not the people and their inadequacy).
6. Changing the system will change what people do. Changing what people do will not change the system.
7. All the teamed-up, accountable, empowered, incentivized, motivated, and paid-for-performance people you can muster cannot compensate for a dysfunctional system.
8. Leaders must understand variation and the difference between common cause variation and special cause variation. Leaders who do not understand variation will: (a) See trends where there are no trends; (b) Miss trends where there are trends; (c) Attribute problems to individuals who have no control; (d) Give credit to people who are simply lucky; (e) Fail to understand past performance; (f) Be unable to predict future performance; (g) Not understand their systems or how to improve them.
13. Leaders may well seek to discover what their organization’s culture is, keeping in mind that they are the people least likely to understand it.
15. Leaders must go an inch wide and a mile deep and lead the organization in this focused approach. The organization must focus its efforts so that it does a few things thoroughly rather than many things inadequately.
19. Feedback is the mother’s milk of improvement. Leaders need to establish ongoing feedback loops from the customer to the organization. Within the organization, leaders need to promote the establishment and maintenance of ongoing systems and process-based feedback loops.
28. Leaders need to lead the establishment of systems and processes for routinely collecting and analyzing critical data, the vital signs that indicate the organization’s well-being, needs and opportunities.
33. Leaders need to see themselves: (a) More as coaches and less as directors; (b) More as experimenters and less as controllers; (c) More as educators and less as advice-givers; (d) More as inquirers and less as inspectors.
41. Some of the common, and false, assumptions leaders have about workers and work are: (a) Problems, for the most part, result from individual dereliction; (b) Successful work requires holding people accountable for the achievement of measurable goals; (c) There is a reservoir of withheld effort that must be coaxed or coerced out of people; (d) The leader’s job is to motivate and control the workforce.
43. Rather than seeking control of their people, leaders must work with their people to gain control of the systems and processes. Rather than dysfunctional systems that require the heroic efforts of outstanding people, leaders should seek the creation and maintenance of outstanding systems and processes that continuously succeed with the ordinary efforts of average people.
I should email this list to my friend and discuss it with him the next time we go out to lunch. Two other ideas that are worth keeping. The first is to set personnel policies based on the premise that your employees are trustworthy, not untrustworthy. For example:
The Trustworthy Employee
Is a responsible adult
Wants to contribute and do good work
Cares about the company—wants it to succeed
Comes to work every day
Can be trusted
The Untrustworthy Employee
Given an inch, takes a mile
Does just what’s required
Feels that it’s just another job
Doesn’t really give a damn
Can’t be trusted
The situational example given comes from the Falk Corporation, which revised its personnel policies based on a switch from the untrustworthy to the trustworthy premise. In the case of bereavement leave, this meant going from a page-long description of all the situations in which the untrustworthy employee could and could not take leave to the following single sentence: “If you require time off due to the death of a friend or family member, make arrangements with your supervisor.” The result? A 53% decrease in the number of bereavement days taken.
The other idea worth keeping is the following. As organizations become flatter, even fewer opportunities for hierarchical advancement will become available. The leader’s challenge will be to satisfy people’s desire to become leaders with fewer hierarchical positions into which people may advance. One way to deal with this is to provide regular ad hoc leadership opportunities in the organization. These opportunities should not be tests, but challenging experiences surrounded by support. The future leaders should be helped to succeed. The organization would define the skills needed for each opportunity, and the individuals would choose to learn the skills needed to qualify for the opportunity.