At a time of economic distress, it is all too easy to imagine that supposedly wise leaders and elite experts—usually, for some reason, residents of Washington, D.C.—should take charge of major decisions and put things right, imposing order and correcting the errors of a chaotic free market.
In “Freedom, Inc.,” Brian M. Carney (a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board) and Isaac Getz take aim at such command-and-control thinking and its smug presumption.
Their focus, however, is the corporation, where a rigid, top-down management style too often makes workers miserable, stifles innovation and, not least, leads to economic distress for employees and stockholders alike. Messrs. Carney and Getz offer portraits of chief executives who have guided their businesses to prosperity by freeing up talent—allowing individuals at every level to solve problems, make decisions and come up with fresh ideas. Some excerpts (via the Wall Street Journal):
A crucial distinction: “Jean-François Zobrist [the former chief executive of FAVI, a France-based manufacturing company] captured his leadership philosophy with a distinction. There are, he said, two kinds of companies: ‘Comment‘ in French, or ‘how’ companies, and ‘pourquoi,’ or ‘why’ companies. ‘How’ companies spend their time telling workers how to do their jobs—where to place the machinery, when to come to work and when to leave, and so on. This has two consequences. The first is that you end up judging employees by everything except what counts, which is whether the job gets done and the customer is happy. The second is that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to change any of the myriad rules about how to get things done. You want to move that cart to a different spot on the shop floor? You need clearance from your manager, who may have to ask his manager, and so on, creating a never-ending ‘chain of comment.’ The result, as Zobrist put it, is that it becomes impossible to get the work done without disobeying somebody in the chain of command. A pourquoi company is different. It replaces all the myriad ‘hows’ with a single question: Why are you doing what you’re doing? The answer is always the same: to keep the customers happy. As long as what you do satisfies that commandment, Zobrist doesn’t worry about how you do it. Freedom at FAVI meant replacing the chain of comment with a single pourquoi.”
The hidden cost of top-down thinking: “Although traditional ‘how’ companies are omnipresent and some report organic growth and good margins, their performance could be better—it could be great. What prevents this is the so-called 97% [of the work force], many of whom are disengaged, stressed out, ill, or even absent. The damage doesn’t show up in the official accounting but is hidden in the costs of turnover, workplace stress, and conflict-ridden labour relations. It also shows up in lack of innovation and slumping organic growth. In the NBA, a team on which players are late or absent from training or even games, who snipe at one another and quarrel with the management, can’t dream of going far in the playoffs or even reaching them. In the NBA, teams can’t hide their problems. Their performance consequences are out in the open for everyone to see at the next night’s game. In the corporate world, however, many companies succeed in keeping their failures out of the public eye for a long time. But even official accounting can’t hide these costs forever—think of the legacy airlines or the Detroit three.”
Freedom can start with a phone call: “Most of us cringe at the thought of calling ‘customer service’—even the most helpful operator at the other end of the line is usually powerless to address our problems. . . . USAA is different. The San Antonio, Texas-based insurer has the kind of call centre that customers actually like to get on the phone with. Not only are the customer service reps happy to help, but they are able to. Many claims are settled and problems resolved on the spot, on the first call, with the first person a customer talks to. This, by the way, is their key performance measure—not the number of calls answered.”
A new kind of leadership: “Bob Davids has started or run seven companies in his life. When asked what is required of a leader in order to begin a liberation campaign, he replied, ‘To be able to subordinate himself to his employees.’ By this he didn’t mean only listening. He also meant cleaning the floors of his latest start-up, Sea Smoke Cellars, himself because it needed to be done and because his employees had more important work to do. It also meant literally getting down in the dirt and digging a ditch alongside his fellow employees at his former company, Radica Games. In both cases, Davids was applying the advice of Robert Townsend, a friend, mentor, and eventual board member at Radica. The former Avis CEO held that a leader is like ‘a blocking back whenever and wherever needed—no job is too menial to him if it helps one of his players advance toward his objective,’ and a water boy ‘who carries water for his people so they can get on with the job.’ Because subordinating oneself to one’s people is the opposite of using one’s power and authority, it’s a way to build a genuine—’egalitarian,’ as Davids and Townsend call it—relationship with them. Seen in this way, it becomes only natural that liberating leaders, the ‘blocking backs,’ the servants of their people, do not display the material signs of privilege. Mahogany executive floors and big corner offices with expensive furniture, company limousines and personalised reserved parking spaces are some of the symbols of unequal status that they avoid.”
The essence of the matter: “Liberating the workplace begins by de-bureaucratizing and re-humanising relations, by making them based on human fairness and equal treatment, so people feel like human beings instead of human resources.”
Want more? Go buy the book!
(Note: Yes. It’s true. Brian Carney is my brother.)
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