Cather­ine Fox re­views a new book on “au­then­tic” com­pa­nies

Now the work­ers call the shots

The Australian - The Deal - - News - Cather­ine Fox

Why should any­one work here? What it takes to cre­ate an au­then­tic or­gan­i­sa­tion

Rob Gof­fee and Gareth Jones Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view Press, 2015

“RE­SPECT, in­tegrity, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and ex­cel­lence”: as cor­po­rate mis­sion state­ments go this one is par for the course. But th­ese fine sen­ti­ments were ac­tu­ally es­poused by none other than En­ron, where a dis­tinct lack of th­ese very qual­i­ties led to disas­ter. The dis­con­nect be­tween what or­gan­i­sa­tions say and do and the lack of hon­esty in both ex­ter­nal and in­ter­nal busi­ness com­mu­ni­ca­tions is symp­to­matic of some core dys­func­tions that the au­thors of this new book bravely tackle. Af­ter writ­ing the lead­er­ship book Why should any­one be

led by you? (HBR 2006) Gof­fee and Jones have moved on to broader ter­ri­tory. They used to be­lieve that a high-per­for­mance cul­ture where peo­ple ei­ther fit­ted in or didn’t was the key to busi­ness suc­cess. But now a very dif­fer­ent re­al­ity is emerg­ing. Or­gan­i­sa­tions no longer hold all the cards nor dic­tate the rules as tal­ent be­comes harder to find. In­stead of ex­pect­ing em­ploy­ees to ad­just to the work­place it’s the other way around, they ex­plain, or com­pa­nies will sim­ply fail to keep the peo­ple they want: they will jump ship more of­ten or go solo.

Chang­ing work­places to fit peo­ple is a laud­able idea, al­though the au­thors are hardly nat­u­ral op­ti­mists. The Lon­don Busi­ness School academics and ex­pe­ri­enced busi­ness con­sul­tants de­scribe them­selves as prone to pes­simism by tem­per­a­ment and train­ing. But it’s their re­fresh­ing can­dour that au­to­mat­i­cally sets Why should any­one work here? apart from the usual boos­t­er­ish man­age­ment books. And given they de­scribe the cen­tral chal­lenges for busi­ness to­day as rein­vent­ing cap­i­tal­ism and re­sist­ing bu­reau­cracy, a cer­tain amount of pes­simism is un­der­stand­able.

The book is mostly prac­ti­cal and hope­ful be­cause even though many em­ploy­ees are frus­trated by their work­places there is a fun­da­men­tal will to do good work and get sat­is­fac­tion from it. This is, in their view, a “species-defin­ing” char­ac­ter­is­tic.

Along the way the au­thors pose some provoca­tive ques­tions for our 24x7 so­ci­ety. Have we all started to out­grow the or­gan­i­sa­tions that em­ploy us? What is the ideal work­place? Can it ever ex­ist? Th­ese are im­por­tant is­sues for all work­ers. Af­ter all, “or­gan­i­sa­tions in all their forms con­sti­tute a ma­jor de­ter­mi­nant of healthy lives and healthy so­ci­eties”.

“If it’s true that to­day’s or­gan­i­sa­tions must work harder to get the best peo­ple to choose them … then pro­vid­ing jobs that are mean­ing­ful in them­selves is es­sen­tial to at­tract­ing em­ploy­ees and in­spir­ing them to do their best work,” they say. Build­ing the ideal – or au­then­tic – or­gan­i­sa­tion is the an­swer.

An au­then­tic or­gan­i­sa­tion sounds very ap­peal­ing as the op­er­a­tions of mod­ern com­plex work­places be­come in­creas­ingly ar­ti­fi­cial and counter-in­tu­itive. But the re­cent man­age­ment fer­vour for the word “au­then­tic”, par­tic­u­larly as a cri­te­rion of good lead­er­ship, has been ob­ses­sive, they ac­knowl­edge.

You can’t tell an or­gan­i­sa­tion to just be it­self, so Gof­fee and Jones de­fine three char­ac­ter­is­tics: a sense of iden­tity; ob­ses­sively liv­ing their val­ues; and lead­ers who model those val­ues. Get­ting there is not easy, they ac­cept, but some of the main step­ping stones in­clude let­ting peo­ple be them­selves no mat­ter their back­ground, be­ing hon­est, stand­ing for some­thing real, mak­ing all work mean­ing­ful and sim­pli­fy­ing the rules. Few or­gan­i­sa­tions have the in­gre­di­ents down pat, and while there are some suc­cesses there are plenty of fail­ures.

Unilever, un­der chief ex­ec­u­tive Paul Pol­man, has shifted its cul­ture to be­come more di­verse and in­no­va­tive. Even the Bri­tish Army gets a men­tion for its strong lead­er­ship fo­cus through­out the ranks and not just at the top. On the other hand, Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, may well be a val­ues-driven leader (who be­rates pas­sen­gers if they don’t like the no-frills ser­vice) but he may be find­ing that chang­ing cus­tomer ex­pec­ta­tions and new com­peti­tors will make his ap­proach less suc­cess­ful, they sug­gest.

Some of the most valu­able anal­y­sis is about tack­ling the bane of the mod­ern worker – con­fus­ing, opaque and counter-

pro­duc­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion and rules. Cor­po­rate spin usu­ally back­fires, as BP found af­ter re­spond­ing er­rat­i­cally to the Gulf of Mex­ico oil spill. Tesco erred when re­spond­ing to claims of horse meat in their burg­ers. But Heineken gets points for re­spond­ing quickly and con­sis­tently to claims it was spon­sor­ing dog fight­ing in Mon­go­lian bars.

(It would have been fas­ci­nat­ing to hear what the au­thors made of the 2015 Volk­swa­gen scan­dal, when the fa­mous com­pany was found to have used devices to pre­vent test­ing of emis­sions on cer­tain mod­els, but pre­sum­ably the events oc­curred af­ter the book was writ­ten.)

In­stead of the sti­fling, time-wast­ing or par­celling out of in­for­ma­tion, cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions should, within rea­son, of­fer a free-flow­ing con­duit by keep­ing chan­nels open, fos­ter­ing trust and shar­ing timely in­for­ma­tion with all stake­hold­ers. In­creas­ingly busi­nesses don’t re­ally have a choice in to­day’s wired and knowl­edge-based work­places, the au­thors point out.

Mean­while frus­tra­tion with a quag­mire of rules in or­gan­i­sa­tions is not just con­fined to em­ploy­ees but af­fects cus­tomers too. Ev­ery work­place needs rules but they should make sense and not be­come a de­fault for trust and open­ness.

The bar­ri­ers to mean­ing­ful work ex­am­ined here are de­press­ingly fa­mil­iar. When or­gan­i­sa­tions get too big their hi­er­ar­chy be­comes out of con­trol; divi­sion of labour makes jobs rep­e­ti­tious and bor­ing; and time lags be­tween ef­fort and re­sult is de­mo­ti­vat­ing. And many de­velop si­los which pre­vent con­nec­tions and smooth com­mu­ni­ca­tion. For those who be­lieve th­ese con­cerns are not crit­i­cal to the bot­tom line, the au­thors re­mind us that the most prof­itable en­ter­prises are not the most profit-ori­ented, but those where prod­uct, ser­vice and in­no­va­tion is king.

Some­times man­age­ment lit­er­a­ture can leave read­ers feel­ing they have heard it all be­fore and the ad­vice on of­fer, or ba­nal suc­cess for­mu­las, are di­vorced from re­al­ity. While many read­ers will be all too fa­mil­iar with the prob­lems out­lined here, it’s the rigour of the anal­y­sis and a firm re­sis­tance to pat an­swers that makes this lat­est of­fer­ing from Gof­fee and Jones well worth di­gest­ing.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.