I was speaking with a young man I know well. He has a disciplined mind, a good heart, and the ability to envision and attack a difficult goal. His abilities have carried him rapidly up the sales organization of a large company. As we were talking, I had the impression that he had some pent-up feeling and I should ask him some meaningful question. Such a question then came: “How do you feel about your boss?”
He gave me a logical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of his boss. He said that the company has grown so large and faces so much change that the politics are intense. His boss is a good man who has to spend much of his time managing up so he spends little time managing down. He gave the boss a solid B.
As he spoke he became more intense and moved his assessment up the hierarchy. He described the constant change and internal politics. He described his own efforts. While most people are focusing on managing up the organization in this period, he decided to take the conscious risk of spending his time managing down. Since taking his most recent job, he has made an intense investment in developing his people and the team has reached such a level of performance that it now consistently leads all the other teams in sales.
I assumed this accomplishment represented the ultimate bottom line and that he was being rewarded handsomely. He told me that in trying to control the cost of sales, the company has changed the compensation plan twice in the past year, financially penalizing the team, and costing him a huge amount in personal bonuses. Trying to keep his people and himself motivated is a challenge which is aggravated by the fact that outside companies are always making offers.
He then continued his analysis. Instead of expressing anger, he conveyed his assessment of the complex dynamics in his large company. He pointed out that there were now many small competitors offering new products specifically targeted to take away customers. Given the size and complexity of the company, it is difficult to get senior people to pay attention to these real but “small” threats. They have many issues on their plates.
He told me of a meeting two weeks prior with the man two levels above him. This senior person introduced a new policy. My friend listened and then pointed out that it would provide still another incentive for his people to consider outside offers. The man from two levels above, needing to justify his position, responded that “turnover is a good thing.” My friend responded that the company has become so complex that it now takes a year to train a salesperson and that turnover is an expensive thing.
A week later he was in a meeting with a man three levels above him. The man showed a numerical analysis of turnover. He told the group that the numbers were unacceptable. They were either hiring the wrong people or they were failing in their leadership. One way or the other, they were accountable and they were failing. Thinking of the former meeting, my deeply frustrated friend spoke up. He shared an account of the previous meeting and suggested that perhaps the problem was more complex: perhaps senior people who do not collaborate are greatly accountable for the problem for which they are ready to blame others. To his credit, the senior person recognized the validity in the statement.
The word complexity is important. The two of us came to an agreement. As companies grow, they become more complex and dynamic. No one mind can see, understand, or manage the complexity. It requires multiple minds working towards a common, higher purpose, in trusting relationships, to create the necessary collective intelligence. In most companies the collective intelligence is low. A focus on task drives out a focus on relationships. There is no higher purpose and there is minimal trust. Politics rule. On a given day, a given leader argues for a given policy. In doing so, the leader fails to see the full ecology of positive values that are being traded off. The people below live in frustration. As we came to this agreement, I suggested an alternative way to live with organizational frustration:
“What if you take a focus that most people do not have? The complexity is not going to go away and internal inefficiencies are going to increase, not decrease. The compensation system will never be right. The response to competitors will never be fast enough. Your people will always have some new frustration and so will you. Despite the changes in the compensation plan, you are making plenty of money. What if instead of using money as your bottom line assessment, you switch it to growth? In a world of complexity and change, your greatest source of security is your competence. What if you asked, in this context, am I experiencing maximum growth and is there anything I can do to accelerate the growth? If I get outside offers, will I have more or less opportunity for growth? What if you also extended this notion and it becomes the vision around which you organize your people? What if you teach them to secure their basic needs and to live for higher purpose and for personal and collective growth?”
This seemed to be a show stopper. He thought about it for a time then he began to explore it. As he did, he became excited. He spoke of the last four years as a period of intense growth for which he was grateful. He talked about the growth he is experiencing in his current challenges. He said there was a lot of potential in the idea and that he would continue to explore it. As we parted, he seemed to be grateful for the conversation. So was I.
- How intense and dynamic are the frustrations in your organization?
- How much have your grown in the last four years?
- What is your personal bottom line and how could you change it?