Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Flying With Soft Power

Jetsgo’s demise after three short years reminds us once again that the airline industry is not for the faint of heart. Failure and struggle characterize the experience more than prosperity. In the case of Jetsgo, analysts have focused on common themes, such as the wrong business model, high-risk expansion strategy and cut-throat competition. All are valid factors, any one of which when done poorly would put a business in jeopardy. But, aside from these, did the analysts miss the real heart of the matter—“soft power”?

How otherwise can one explain the sustainability of Southwest Airlines amongst the detritus of struggling and defunct airlines? Many, like Jetsgo, have strived in vain to copy Southwest’s low cost no frills model. While one after another airline has fallen by the wayside, year over year Southwest survives and thrives defying all odds. WestJet, another Southwest knock-off, is the exception. It appears to have staying power, keeping true to the Southwest formula and growing steadily despite serious allegations from competitors such as Jetsgo.

Jody Hoffer Gittell of Brandeis University, who extensively researched Southwest and its American competitors, sums up the formula in one word---“relationships”. She contends that Southwest’s acumen at “relational coordination” is the core of its success. She describes relational coordination as shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect. These are universal capabilities that she found in other successful organizations too. She contends that Southwest’s approach is applicable to any organization for increasing efficiency and productivity, let alone creating a positive culture.

Gittell’s research compellingly demonstrates how tightly linked cross functional coordination at the front line boosts performance. Using the values of caring and respect to guide all interactions, Southwest accomplishes enviable functional interdependence with methods that fly in the face of management trends. For example, rich staffing levels, not simply good technology drive Southwest’s success. Each supervisor is responsible for 10 to 12 front line workers, the highest supervisor-to-employee ratio in the industry. Each flight at Southwest has its own operations agent who acts as a “boundary spanner” engaging in face-to-face contact with each function before, during and after the turnaround of a flight. The operations agent focuses on one flight at a time, unlike those in other airlines who juggle several flights simultaneously.

Everyone at Southwest is aware that turnaround time is critical for efficiency, customer service and the ongoing viability of the airline. When problems arise, as they inevitably do, each flight team owns the problem rather than a function. Other airlines, according to Gittell, skimp at their peril on this vital coordination process. As a result, they sacrifice the power that it generates---relationships. The dynamic social cohesion arising from the soft power of the strong relationships drive all elements of success at Southwest including continuous learning.

The “engaged” worker is touted in the management literature as essential to the longevity of an organization. Productivity studies remind us repeatedly that human skills and innovation are the drivers of growth and that we are not necessarily doing a good job at it. From the ‘engaged” perspective, we are getting compliance but not necessarily commitment often because we are unable to connect with the real world view of another and we do not share information on a timely basis. We divide ourselves up by function and title. We protect our turf often with disastrous consequences such as the terrorist calamities we have suffered through in the last few years.

Poor management related to “silos”, inadequate information exchange and lack of intelligent imagination is almost always cited as a prime reason for not preventing terrorist acts or the eventual fall of once seemingly well-functioning organizations. Yet, with leaders who actually “see” the whole rather than the parts, we can overcome our parochialism, walk together and be truly engaged in achieving outstanding results and averting potential adverse consequences. Southwest, by virtue of its overarching commitment to relationships has proven that “soft power” when implemented with heart and discipline can provide the right fuel in an extremely challenging business.

If you believe that this can only be achieved in a non-union environment, think again. Southwest like its counterparts is highly unionized. It helps to have a founder who was taught at an early age to value each and every human being and that “respect” is an absolute requirement for gaining anyone’s heart.

Jon R. Katzenbach, a New York management consultant, who also studied Southwest Airlines, believes that “pride” is the sustaining phenomenon (“Why Pride Matters More Than Money: The Power of the World’s Greatest Motivational Force”). We can surmise that empathy is a critical means of creating pride. Empathy is the way we often experience respect because to walk in someone else’s shoes, we must engage in dialogue with that person. We must listen to understand, as Stephen Covey so passionately explains. This sends a message—that every person counts. This is Southwest’s not so secret flying power.

Friday, March 11, 2005

The Importance of Martha's H Ingredient

There’s no doubt about it. Martha Stewart is one tough, resilient individual. And we admire her for that. But as the saying goes, “insanity is doing the same things and expecting different results”. To rebuild her company, Martha will need at least a dash of humility or what I call the “H” ingredient. Has the embarrassment of her trial and eventual incarceration for five months been life-changing for Martha? It’s too early to tell. To revive her company, it will not be enough just to do something altruistic for imprisoned women. Martha needs to demonstrate that she is a kinder, gentler person.

Before Martha went to prison, there was little indication that she was in touch with her “people” side. It is common knowledge that Martha irritated and was frequently unkind to many persons in the pursuit of her business objectives. Ironically, her insensitivity to people may have been a major factor in her eventual demise.

We can only surmise that Martha’s legal woes may have unfolded quite differently had she nurtured a devoted network of colleagues and employees. Martha’s legal transgressions were mild in comparison to those of other senior executives in the news charged with “white collar crimes”. Something else, such as the “H” ingredient, must have played a role, hovering below the surface, escaping Martha’s awareness and meticulousness. When the going got tough, it is possible that the right friends did not come to Martha’s rescue in the early stages when the seeds of her legal problems were taking form.

As the time drew near to going to prison, Martha remained the stoic businessperson. She never mentioned that she would miss her daughter. Perhaps she did that deliberately because it’s not “businesslike” to say such things. However, she did say that she would miss her multitudes of pets and her work. Martha emphasized in a July 2004 Larry King interview that she “wished she were the nicest, nicest person on earth, but I am a businessperson.” Does Martha equate being “nice” with not being a sharp businessperson?

Let’s hope that a valued coach will help Martha re-evaluate her assumptions and “see” that humbleness and empathy will go a long way in helping to re-ignite her company. The brand is Martha. But the brand is unsustainable without Martha tuning her attention to building a great company of excited and inspired people. It’s a matter of balance.

Daniel Goleman of the “empathy” fame would say that Martha’s styles are overbalanced on the demanding and pace-setting which negatively impact on the culture of her organization. He would likely recommend dashes of “H” ingredients such as “people come first” and “what do you think”?

Jim Collins, who undertook a five year research study to determine what catapults a company from good to great might declare hands down that if Martha can’t find a way to become a “Level 5 Leader”, her company will never truly become great. He describes a “Level 5 Leader” as “an individual who blends extreme personal humility with intense professional will”. Well, Martha has the will!

Finally, another spin on the humility ingredient is the “versatile leader”, a person who doesn’t default always to her strengths whether strategic or operational or enabling or forceful, but instead draws on the right capabilities for the particular situation. That is, a leader may have to pursue consciously that which she is not necessarily inclined to do in order to contribute to moving the organization forward positively. For Martha, that would mean being more “enabling”.

Martha loves recipes. On her release from prison, she explained to an interviewer that she was going to write some guidelines on surviving the situation she went through such as how to conduct yourself (with the media, in the courtroom), what experts to consult, etc. She lived the experience with few “best practices” on which to rely. Now, she can be a teacher to others who are unfortunate enough to get entangled with the law. Will she add to her recipe book the “H” ingredient? It’s potent.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Chess Not Checkers

There is a common thread in much of the leadership and management literature—honour the uniqueness of each person and celebrate your own before you can truly be a great leader-manager. Like chess pieces, as Marcus Buckingham explains in Harvard Business Review’s March 2005 issue, each of us is different and if treated that way by our managers, we have the opportunity to “turn our particular talents into performance”. “Average managers play checkers while great managers play chess.” In the famous poet William Blake’s words, “truly meaningful change happens only when people awaken to the infinite potential within themselves.” Great managers then enable this “awakening” and build on each person’s gifts.

Oddly, Buckingham uncouples the leader-manager link in this case declaring that great leaders do the opposite leveraging universal concepts such as “rallying people toward a better future, using stories and celebrating heroes to tap into those few needs we all share”. True, we expect this ability of great leaders but do we not also want great managers to be this way? The rallying and inspiring is equally as important at the work group level as it is at the broader organizational one. So too a top leader must work skillfully with the differences and special talents of the departments, divisions and business units for which she or he is responsible.

That’s why I like the chess metaphor because it applies to both the individual and group/system levels. Great leader-managers deliberately and intuitively manage the subtle differences and needs of the various cultures in their organizations. They do not assume that one culture prevails even if they wish that were the reality. They openly immerse themselves in learning the nuances in each part of the organization. They become an integral player in the dance of change toward a better future honouring the complexity of situations while finding the simplicity in them as well. Margaret Wheatley describes this beautifully in her classic book, A Simpler Way, that “we live in a world we cannot plan for, control or replicate…it requires constant awareness, being present, being vigilant for the newly visible.” Leader-managers with mind sets that value emergence encourage discovery “as we go”. They know that this grows our abilities individually and collectively to get good results using our visions, strategies, goals and objectives as guides.

This is a tall order for leaders and managers: to accept that we are as much a part of the unfolding drama as are those with whom we work, to embrace diversity as a means of forging unity and to trust the process works provided that we conduct themselves as alert agents within it. We are one of the chess pieces and the chess master. Like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, everything we do affects everything else around us. Rudy Giuliani just ‘cuts to the chase’, calling the phenomenon—“I am responsible”.

So, the challenge of leadership and management, which I consider intricately connected, is more than working with the special talents of each person. It is everyone on the chess board being open to learning from the surprises of change as they happen on the chess board. Building on the views of Robert Quinn, a professor in the University of Michigan, Business School, if leader-managers play chess well, they have the opportunity to achieve “deep change”. But, checkers can cause “slow death” despite their best efforts at rational improvements. He continues, “building the bridge as we walk on it is deeply unsettling because it means learning in real time”.

Tinkering may be another way of viewing an important new skill for great leader-managers. Delight in the materials at hand. Discover what is possible. Don’t get too concerned with the messiness. Have confidence that together you and your people will create order out of the chaos.