Catherine Fox reviews a new book on “authentic” companies
Now the workers call the shots
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.