The Enabling Leader

‘The Enabling Leader’ is a way of thinking about corporate performance in the 21st Century.  It brings attention to the relationship between the organisation and the individual as a point of leverage: if this relationship is healthy both organisation and individual thrive, going a long way towards resolving the problems and issues of the 21st Century work environment and to opening up the opportunities also present.

There are a number of significant changes afoot that are impacting the workplace:

  • Millenials or Generation Y, those born in the 80’s and 90’s will form 50% of the workforce by 2020. This generation has, it seems, a somewhat different view of the world to the generations that preceded them.  This brings both problems and opportunities.  At the heart of the issue is that the preceding generations don’t know how to manage and lead people who were not brought up in a culture of (pretty much) unquestioning compliance of the hierarchy, the establishment.  (I sometimes think we are in danger of both over-simplifying and over-stating the issue: so called Millenials act very much like the previous generation when money, status and responsibility land on their plate. And it is also rather patronizing to define an entire generation so simply)
  • Digitisation and the development of AI, which is only at the beginning and the full impact is many years off, means that any job for which you can describe the process can be automated. The medical and legal professions are seeing the impact – its not just robots in factories.  Many jobs are at risk and we do not have a real sense of what jobs will be created to replace them.  The jobs that will continue to exist or emerge will be those that require the best of the human being to execute them effectively
  • Alongside the drive to digitisation is the vast uncertainty created by ‘disruptive’ entrants to previously established markets – a fast changing world where traditional ’command and control’ is too slow and customers are more demanding.

If the three shifts above are new to this century then the following are hangovers from the last and still have considerable impact:

  • John D. Rockefeller, who founded The General Education Board, joined later in the endeavor by Andrew Carnegie, was not interested in liberating people through education as might be expected from what may occur as a grand philanthropic gesture, but rather it was a strategy to build a workforce of reliable, predictable and compliant citizens to ‘man’ the factories. Our education systems, at all levels, our management systems and even our religions have not fundamentally changed since those early 20th Century ‘ideals’.  The reality of most management approaches is that we have not moved much from ‘carrot and stick’ even though all the research shows that extrinsic motivation not only does not work but is actually detrimental to performance in the long term.
  • The 20th Century world of work is heavily marked by the drive for efficiency, a mind-set that some have labeled ‘Fordism’. Henry Ford’s production line represented a big leap in efficiency and from that, productivity.  Over the second half of the century the drive for efficiency was encoded as Total Quality Management then Business Process Re-engineering, Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing.  Six Sigma is an approach to process improvement in which 99.99966% of all products are expected to be defect free.  We can ‘do’ efficiency but future progress in business requires more than that, it requires human ingenuity.

All of these factors have consequences that many organisations are struggling to find solutions to:

  • Apparently about one person in eight is fully engaged in their work, about 63% ‘not engaged’ and a staggering 24% are ‘actively disengaged’. That’s a lot of productivity, creativity and energy that is simply being wasted.
  • The culture of compliance, ‘learned incompetence’, what some have disparagingly labelled ‘the frozen middle’ (if an organizational layer in not functioning, don’t blame the people enmeshed, look to the layers above), has given rise to a loss of agility and resilience in the workplace where many have forgotten what it is to hold responsibility
  • Performance is diminished. Productivity levels have still not recovered to pre-crash 2007 levels and in some cases are falling further.  Innovation and creativity, are vital in a post efficiency era,

At its core this is a human problem and it requires a human, and humane, approach.  Fundamentally it requires each individual to re-discover their own authority and autonomy, to choose to engage with work, to choose to exploit the resources they were born with and have developed over time – their unique individual genius – so that they and the employing organisation can thrive. 

There is some truth in the idea that change happens ‘one person at a time’ and that, for such a change to happen each individual has to sign up.  Fortunately, the leader or manager is uniquely placed to assist in that process and to manage the interests of both the individual employee and employing organisation .

In the Enabling Leader model the leader or manager has three distinct conversations – skills sets – that enable him or her to manage both the individual and the organisation and to play a significant part in ensuring that both survive and thrive.

The Leadership conversation is about Why a role, project is significant: it is about the context (the economic climate, the industry, politics), the mission, vision and strategy of the organisation.

The Management conversation is about What the individual is signing up to do: the specifics of the role and component parts, the goals, standards and expectations.  If these are not clear, and in my experience in most cases they are not, then the individual cannot perform well.  It is a bit like trying to play chess with no hard distinction between the squares, no set moves for the pieces and no idea about what winning looks like.  No flow

The coaching conversation is about How the role, project or task is executed: strategy, plans, approaches.  The employee needs to truly own the outcome of this conversation.

And, to complete, the fourth element is the relationship between the manager and employee and the need is to create a relationship built on mutual trust.  If there is no trust then none of the conversations above are possible.

If the employee is clear about the Why, What and How of their role a significant part of the conditions for high performance are satisfied – high flow, high engagement.

The Enabling Leader’s role, through the three conversations, is to ensure that both the organisation and the individual survive and thrive