Thursday, July 14, 2011

Cultivate Leaders Throughout An Organization, Not Just At The Top

The old saw goes, "People truly are your only real competitive advantage in business."  So if that's true, then why are so many of our children and our future leaders raised in the cages of constrained habit and "best practices?"

Acclaimed essayist William Deresiewicz, in a thought-provoking lecture given to a class at the US Military Academy at West Point, contended that America's elite schools are no longer churning out a nation of leaders, they are churning out flocks of sheep.  Deresiewicz, who recently sat on the Yale College admissions committee, saw great kids who had been trained to be what he called, "world-class hoop jumpers."  "Any goal you set them," he said, "they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as another committee member put it, 'excellent sheep.'"

Contrary to what some organizations preach, people who are trained to do as they are told without question will not be the ones to grow and evolve a company into a world-changing force.

What then are some alternative qualities of leadership?  Deresiewicz believes leaders are people who think for themselves, people who can formulate a new direction for a company – people with their own visions, developed independent of existing paradigms and patterns.

In my limited experience as the leader of a fast-growing organization, it's been my observation that creating an environment that offers people the freedom to think independently encourages them to formulate ideas that will have dramatic effects.  Investing in our employees' happiness and sense of personal responsibility creates agents of change – future stewards of innovation.  

Here are three approaches to creating environments that foster leadership:

Free Thinkers

Who among us doesn't know a student who has a tighter schedule than most visiting dignitaries? Between volunteering at fundraisers and private tutoring in Mandarin, kids today have little time to think independently and play creatively.  Many aren't given the time, the freedom, or the room to develop their own voice.  In turn, many organizations just continue this cycle by treating their employees like school children.

In our company, we decided to experiment with letting people decide when and how they would accomplish their objectives.  We have no established office hours.  We let people build out their own teams and manage them as they see fit.  Three years later, we are amazed at what people will accomplish when they want to and furthermore, when they are expected to.  These are the people that will become agents of change, which is exactly what we need in a technology start-up when creative iteration is of the utmost importance. 

Agents for Change

Leaders are paradigm shifters. In an earlier Forbes MarketShare post, I discussed Steve Jobs' ability to disrupt the status quo with his visionary ideas. Apple has created innovations over the last decade that materially changed the way we live our lives.  At the recent D8 conference, Steve Jobs announced the iCloud, which could ultimately lead to the demise of the desktop PC – a product Jobs himself brought to market many years ago.

At meetings, we've found it best to encourage the asking of questions.  We give people permission to ask why something has to be done a certain way or even if it should be done at all.  Disrespect for convention and the status quo is the key to innovation, and while we can't all be the Wizard of Cupertino, we can channel some of that playful dialectic.

The Happiness Quotient

We believe good leaders are first and foremost happy employees. Stanford professor and author of "The Dragonfly Effect" Jennifer Aaker, in her research into why certain ideas take flight, points to a growing body of research that shows a person's happiness plays a key role in motivation and ideation. Aaker says that her research points to three key factors that contribute to an environment of happiness:

1. Enable people to find meaning in their work.

2. Enable people to make connections.

3. Help them feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

We consider the happiness of our team to be as important as generating revenue. We think the emotional impact of a job, reporting line, desk placement, and compensation decisions are as important as what we return to shareholders. It means that we first consider whether someone is happy, and value that happiness as highly as we do their performance. Ultimately, the circle is a loop and happy employees create success for the company.

As the nature of work itself has changed, as the age of the information worker has evolved, the requirements of leadership have shifted, as well.  We no longer need one exceptional leader at the top, we need leaders all throughout an organization. We need more than one of a kind.

Thanks to Zephrin Lasker / Blogs Forbes

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