Thursday, January 25, 2007

Igniting the Fire of Purpose

He’s only 16 years and brimming with the fire of purpose. In reading his story, Luke sounds like and acts like an old soul. Working in his parents’ restaurant in Kingston, Ontario, he’s pursuing a culinary calling making “homemade” food for the lucky locals and visitors to the city.

A follower of the “Slow Food Movement”, he asks customers not to rush the chef as “our foods are handcrafted as they were hundreds of years ago in villages scattered throughout Italy and France”. He experiments continuously, avidly reads cookbooks, gets absorbed in the minutiae of the culinary arts and lovingly presents each plate for patrons as if it was a piece of art. He dreams big of greenhouses, a beehive, an olive grove and other things that will make a completely sustainable restaurant. In short, he’s possessed like an artist by a calling.

Imagine if each of us in organizations were inspired like Luke? We would not have to pay attention to benchmarking as we would set our own. We would not as leaders have to manage as much because those around us would be pulling us forward. The energy would be palpable. Excitement and fun would be in the air. Creativity would abound because we’d be feeding off each others’ ideas as we pursued our laser focus on quality and innovation.

Social scientists generally agree that humans are naturally goal-driven. We get satisfaction from accomplishing things. Our human history is replete with stories like Luke’s, some recorded in books and articles, many only known locally.

Central to each is the person and persons being driven by a force greater than them alone. They want to engage in work that is meaningful. David Bornstein in How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas explains that individuals have a strong desire to apply their talents in ways that bring security, recognition and meaning. Nikos Mourkogiannis in Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies refers to the phenomenon as the primary source of achievement, a game of champions, a function of character and crucial to the success of enterprises.

Yet we struggle to ignite and inspire people in organizations with purpose and meaning. Based on the constant outpouring of satisfaction surveys, the evidence points to the desire often being present for employees but it is frequently squashed by the working environment.

The latest annual survey results from Sirota Survey Intelligence, a workplace attitude pollster in Purchase N.Y., underscores that people want meaning in their work. They will rise to the occasion if they are treated with respect, dealt with equitably, and feel connected to the organization on a work and personal level. Unfortunately, the 64,304 employees surveyed of whom 8,000 were Canadian indicate that the sense of excitement and anticipation on these expectations plummets from 70 to 54 per cent after one year of service. The degree of satisfaction does not easily go back up. In the organizations that intentionally work on developing consistent leadership and management policies and practices, the satisfaction level is 75 per cent after one year. This applies for older employees (55 and older) as well as those aged 25 to 34. Considerable research highlights the correlation between satisfaction and productivity; thus, this is a serious business matter for all organizations.

Take Toyota. It’s rising to the top in the car industry, surpassing GM and Ford. Today, Ford reported a never before in its history loss of more than $12 B while Toyota is thriving. In 2006, GM and Ford terminated 46,000 North America employees and will be closing 26 plants in North America over the next 5 years. Toyota has never closed a plant. It’s opening them instead. Much can be attributed to its culture of continuous improvement as described in The Toyota Way and more recently in the December 2006 Fast Company, No satisfaction at Toyota (

At Toyota the mantra is three fold: “making cars, making cars better and teaching everyone how to make cars better”. The perpetual focus on asking questions of the existing processes followed by constant tweaking has led to outstanding growth and quality. This cannot be achieved without inspired employees.

Inspiration happens one employee at a time. For Luke, his parents provide the support and the tools for continuous improvement. He’s got the natural drive to excel in the culinary business. Luke is fortunate.

Others have succeeded despite enormous obstacles. That’s the norm too often. Who knows what more they could have achieved if the environment had been a little more benign?

In many ways, this is an old story. Our natural predispositions are ignited or not at the intersection of our circumstances and desire. Aware and determined leaders always have the opportunity to make that intersection one that turns little acorns into trees.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Baird's Perilous Learning Curve

Canada’s new Federal Environment Minister reminds me of a bright-eyed, brand new manager who is about to get some hard lessons. Despite being Harper’s trusted lieutenant, he’ll need more than the Prime Minister’s support to succeed in the environment portfolio. This is going to require authentic, adaptive leadership. Aside from John Baird’s potential as a leader on the environment, he’s starting from minus zero.

Many people already “smell a rat”. The Federal Conservatives about face on the environment file appears to be one of political expediency. They have finally woken up to which way the wind is blowing on the environment. Accordingly, they are adjusting their tone and tune. A new face (Baird) is one of the first chess moves. Can he do it?

I don’t know enough about Baird’s track record to use history as a predictor of the future. Fleetingly, I’ve seen him in a smattering of question periods while he was an MPP and now an MP. Certainly he came across as keen, enthusiastic and committed to getting things done. Not surprisingly, he’s been firm on the Conservative’s agenda on many matters. This portfolio may cause him to question his values and beliefs. Is he up to the task?

Let’s look at what he really has to do to succeed, according to Linda Hill’s research on becoming a new boss (January 2007, Harvard Business Review, ).

Demonstrate character: the intention to do the right thing
This is the crucial line in the sand for any leader-manager. It is the foundation for earning people’s respect and trust. It means negotiating an action plan in an environment full of interdependent relationships. A mind set of “I know best” and “we must be efficient” won’t fly. This complex subject is driven by non-partisan values, the prevailing scientific evidence, the long view and no guarantee of an immediate return on investment.

Baird will have to establish credibility with a web of stakeholders, many of whom will be wary of his intentions. It will not be enough to work with his closest advisors who likely do not have enough diversity in knowledge as a team. Baird must reach out to those with whom he does not agree. He will have to convince them that he is more than a marketing front man.

Demonstrate competence: knowing how to do the right thing
Ah, this will be quite challenging. Baird’s boss has given the impression that he is decidedly unconvinced the environment is in need of his firm decision making to avert disaster for future generations. Harper’s messages often come across as “we can have our cake and eat it too”.

We all know that any body of knowledge is always a work in progress. Thus, questioning the findings, at least in scientific circles, is a de facto standard for debate and discussion. However, there comes a time when the “negotiated truths” converge. As it stands, the voices are getting louder and more anxious. In 2001, 100 Nobel Prize winners from around the globe, including our own John Polanyi, raised the alarm. They continue to do so today. The urgency of the situation now demands collective political leadership. It’s time to stop quibbling.

How is Baird going to convince voters who are alarmed about the environment (as many and recent polls suggest) that he knows what he is talking about? His immediate work group has not demonstrated its grasp of the reality. If leaders show they are not convinced by a consensus that has solid evidence behind it and that they are sincere in managing risk for future generations, why would anyone believe they are competent?

Demonstrate influence: the ability to deliver and execute the right thing
My guess is that Baird will deliver. Will the product be the right one, though? Is he going to suffer a “Rona” fate ultimately?

The quality of the product will depend on the quality of the decision making process Baird uses. If he’s already made up his mind and he’s intending on marketing what he wants to stakeholders, he’s setting himself up for failure. This complex file requires creative and open dialogue, not just from the top but from across parties, jurisdictions and knowledge domains and from practitioners.

With a product in hand comprised of “common ground” among competing interests, the leadership litmus test for Baird is next---setting the policy framework to make sensible and effective action possible among the various players.

Let’s hope Baird learns well on the job such that he will not be a “promotion mistake”. Much will depend on his ability to manage “up” as well as “down”. As time is of the essence, his success will benefit all of us.