Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What's Most Important in a Flat, Diverse World?

By Patricia Wheeler

Being the only American in the room is a very cool experience. I had the pleasure of spending a few days coaching a group of senior leaders from a large global company. A cohort of their multinational workforce came together to sharpen their strategic focus and accelerate profits. As part of their experience, they received behavioral feedback through a 360 assessment.

These several dozen leaders were from all parts of the world (with the exception of the U.S.). And they were the picture of diversity….imagine an Italian vice president working in the Far East, married to a Japanese woman working for an Eastern European consulate. There was an Australian general manager working in South America. Add to the mix a Lebanese president of a Dubai-based division, as well as a German executive leading in Singapore. And many more, often working outside their home culture.

For several days they explored global strategy, their personal 360s and learning from leaders within their industry. And they came to an interesting conclusion. It may sound overly simplistic, but here it is: It’s all about the people. People are the critical business success factor, whether their challenges involve driving innovation, aligning operations or increasing sales. And this is especially true in an ambiguous, swirling environment, where security and predictability are low, and the need for flexibility and speed is especially critical.

I’ve heard push-back about this idea. Some leaders say things like, “But, Patricia, we’re in the widget business. My business is not about people….it’s about making widgets faster, cheaper, better!”

Well, let’s look closely at the widget business. Who makes the widgets? Who packages and delivers them to market? Who sells them? Who hires the sales force? Who trains them? Who crafts the marketing message? Who creates corporate strategy? Who decides on innovations? Who answers the company phone? At the end of the day, what business success does not rest on the ideas and efforts of its people?

When faced with the reality that every business is the People Business, I hear leaders express thoughts like these, which were expressed in this session:

“I’ve focused so much on the facts, I haven’t developed my people as much as I need to.”

“I’m so sure of my own viewpoint, I forget to ask others for their opinion.”

“I’m so focused on coming up with answers that are 100% correct that I don’t pay enough attention to innovation.”

If attention to the people in your business is crucial to your success, consider the following questions that we ask our clients:

How much time do you spend developing your people and their capabilities? Do you treat people as important as processes? How often do you meet face to face and talk with them about their successes, goals and aspirations? The best workers, especially within the emerging generations, demand development. Ignore this step and you’ll likely lose them.

To what degree to you actively seek the perspective of others, particularly those at levels below yours? If your answer is “not much,” you're not tapping into grass-roots knowledge that could be crucial to your competitive advantage as well as a great opportunity to motivate your people.

How much do your people feel that you value them? How are you measuring this? Remember this: just thinking about something doesn’t count. They need for you to demonstrate your interest, in words and action. And if you’re not regularly and rigorously assessing employee engagement, you are vulnerable to your talent walking out the door.

How are you preparing your workforce to take on various roles across your enterprise? Leading companies “cross-train” their leaders to take on assignments out of their comfort zone, and rotate leaders regularly. The days of spending your days in one function or department appear to be limited, and this is a good thing, as these rotations serve to break down silos and increase long-term performance.

And know this…even in a challenging financial climate, when many companies are cutting their budgets, there are still organizations allocating time, money and attention to developing their current and future leaders. It’s inspiring to me, because we need good leaders even more in an economic downturn. And if you’re not continuing to develop leaders during a downturn, your most promising leaders may jump ship and go to those companies that continue affirming and investing in their value.

Copyright 2008, Leading News

Patricia Wheeler is an executive and team coach who helps smart people become better leaders. As Managing Partner in the Levin Group LLC, she has spent 15 years consulting to organizations and coaching senior leaders and their teams. You may contact Patricia by E-mail at Patricia@TheLevinGroup.com or by telephone at 404 377-9408.

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