- Managing Me
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- Managing People
Suppose you want to design the best company on Earth to work for. What would it be like?
For three years we’ve been investigating this question by asking hundreds of executives in surveys and in seminars all over the world to describe their ideal organisation. Many of their answers were highly specific, of course. But underlying the differences of circumstance, industry and individual ambition we found six common imperatives. Together they describe an organisation that operates at its fullest potential by allowing people to do their best work.
We call this ‘the organisation of your dreams’. In a nutshell, it’s a company where individual differences are nurtured; information is not suppressed or spun; the company adds value to employees, rather than merely extracting it from them; the organisation stands for something meaningful; the work itself is intrinsically rewarding; and there are no stupid rules.
When companies try to accommodate differences, they too often confine themselves to traditional diversity categories – gender, race, age, ethnicity and the like. These efforts are laudable, but the executives we interviewed were after something more subtle – differences in perspectives, habits of mind and core assumptions.
The ideal organisation is aware of dominant currents in its culture, work habits, dress code, traditions and governing assumptions but makes explicit efforts to transcend them. We are talking not just about the buttoned-down financial services company that embraces the information technology guys in shorts and sandals, but also the hipster organisation that doesn’t look askance when someone wears a suit. Or the place where nearly everyone comes in at odd hours but that accommodates the one or two people who prefer a 9-to-5 schedule.
The organisation of your dreams does not deceive, stonewall, distort or spin. It recognises that in the age of Facebook, WikiLeaks and Twitter, you’re better off telling people the truth before someone else does. It respects its employees’ need to know what’s really going on so that they can do their jobs, particularly in volatile environments where it’s already difficult to keep everyone aligned and where workers at all levels are being asked to think more strategically. You’d imagine that would be self-evident to managers everywhere. In reality, the barriers to what we call ‘radical honesty’ – that is, entirely candid, complete, clear and timely communication – are legion.
The reluctance to be the bearer of bad news is deeply human, for instance, and trade secrets will always require confidentiality. And we don’t want to suggest that honesty will necessarily stop problems from arising, particularly in highly regulated industries that routinely find themselves under scrutiny. We maintain, though, that executives should err on the side of transparency far more than their instincts suggest. Particularly today, when trust levels among both employees and customers are so low and background noise is so high, organisations must work very hard to communicate what’s going on if they are to be heard and believed.
The ideal company makes its best employees even better – and the least of them better than they ever thought they could be. In robust economies, when competition for talent is fierce, it’s easy to see that the benefits of developing existing staff outweigh the costs of finding new workers. But even then, companies grumble about losing their investment when people decamp for more-promising opportunities. In both good times and bad, managers are far more often rewarded for minimising labour costs than for the longer-term goal of increasing workers’ effectiveness. Perhaps that explains why this aspiration, while so widely recognised and well understood, often remains unfulfilled.
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Elite universities and hospitals, Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, and design firms like Arup have all been adding value to valuable people for a very long time. Google and Apple are more recent examples. They do this in myriad ways – by providing networks, creative interaction with peers, stretch assignments, training and a brand that confers elite status on employees. None of this is rocket science, nor is it likely to be news to anyone.
But the challenge of finding, training and retaining excellent workers is not confined to specialised, high-tech or high-finance industries. We contend that the employee-employer relationship is shifting in many industries from how much value can be extracted from workers to how much can be instilled in them. At heart, that’s what productivity improvement really means.
People want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, something they can believe in. “I’ve worked in organisations where people try to brainwash me about the virtues of the brand,” one seminar participant told us. “I want to work in an organisation where I can really feel where the company comes from and what it stands for so that I can live the brand.”
It has become commonplace to assert that organisations need shared meaning, and this is surely so. But shared meaning is about more than fulfilling your mission statement – it’s about forging and maintaining powerful connections between personal and organisational values. When you do that, you foster individuality and a strong culture at the same time.
Beyond shared meaning, the executives we’ve spoken to want something else. They seek to derive meaning from their daily activities.
This aspiration cannot be fulfilled in any comprehensive way through job enrichment add-on. It requires nothing less than a deliberate reconsideration of the tasks each person is performing. Do those duties make sense? Why are they what they are? Are they as engaging as they can be? This is a huge, complex undertaking. But we suggest that the benefits of rising to it are potentially very great. Where work is meaningful, it typically becomes a cause.
The challenge is similar to that of fostering personal growth. If you don’t do it, the best people may leave or never consider you at all. Or your competitors may develop the potential in people you’ve overlooked. When you do make the investment, your staff members become more valuable to you and your competitors alike. The trick, then, is to make it meaningful for them to stay.
No one should be surprised that, for many people, the dream organisation is free of arbitrary restrictions. But it does not obliterate all rules. Organisations need structure. Markets and enterprises need rules. As successful entrepreneurial businesses grow, they often come to believe that new, complicated processes will undermine their culture. But systematisation need not lead to bureaucratisation, not if people understand what the rules are for and view them as legitimate.
Rob Goffee is an emeritus professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School. Gareth Jones is a visiting professor at the IE Business School, in Madrid.