In our previous episode, I talked about leading a team, and its effectiveness being made up of two component parts, part one, being clarity times part two, which is commitment. And in the previous episode, I talked about clarity under the headings of defining and agreeing what the destination is, so the Where. Secondly, by identifying What the path is to get there in terms of strategy and priorities. Thirdly, the Who is about roles and defining responsibilities. And finally the How, which is about ways of working, what’s okay, what’s not okay, and the expectations that we have of each other. I also referred to the fact that the higher the level of clarity around those four questions, the greater the uptick there is and the direct, positive impact that it has on people’s commitment.
Today, I’m going to dedicate the entire episode to the one question, which gets the least amount of time, because there is so little time, and it’s the question of Why? What’s our purpose? Why do we exist? What are we here for? And as you’ll hear from the episode, addressing this question of Why, is probably the most directly connected to tapping into people’s levels of commitment, through motivation and inspiration.
I’m going to begin with a story of one of the very first clients I ever worked with in the early part of my consulting career. It was a manufacturing client. And you drove through the facility, you went through an entrance security gate, and the large manufacturing facility was directly in front of you. You were directed around to the right-hand side, where you parked your car in the visitors car park. When you got out of your car, you had to walk back, and right across the front of the whole building, because the signature headquarter building, where all the white collars were, was about, it must’ve been a quarter of a mile walk from the visitor carpark. Oh, and by the way, it always seemed to rain anytime that I went there. When you rounded the final corner of the manufacturing facility and got into sight of the signature designer building of HQ, one of the first things you saw was a series of flags, often having the country flag of any visiting dignitaries. But one of the permanent flags was there, was a very large crown, which on the crown, on the flag, it said, our customer is King.
Now you’re already looking at this, having walked a quarter of a mile from the visitor car park. And as you’re about to enter into the main entrance, you notice that just to the side of the building, there are four parking spaces for the MD, Head of Sales, Head of Operations and Head of Legal.
Now there were almost a thousand people in that facility who looked at that flag every day and knew the words were nothing but hollow. And it won’t surprise you to hear that there was a disproportionately high level of industrial unrest throughout the time that I was visiting. You see the problem with mission statements, purpose statements, values, and the like, is that they are far more likely to induce eye-rolling cynicism, than they are to motivate and inspire, which was the very reason that they were originated in the first place.
We have a client at the moment, that is, like you perhaps, going through the period, after all the turbulence, of trying to reset and realign the team. To do this they’ve pulled out a document, a document which is essentially a written version of what we stand for. Now, this is a document that firstly was created before most of the team present were ever involved in the team or the business, the language there is awkward and archaic, not everybody even knew it existed, it’s never been discussed, and it’s sat somewhere in somebody’s bottom drawer, since the very first time it was created. This is the type of stage act that Lucy Kellaway made an industry out of lampooning as corporate guff, in her regular much missed column in the financial times.
You see here is a document that masquerades as a promissory note, but whose currency has been totally devalued, to being at a point of counterfeit. You see cynicism around this stuff is very easy to explain. And it’s very understandable, because it’s earned through the disconnection that occurs between the stated purpose and the daily actions, behaviors, and activities that people witness and the often, all too palpable incongruence between the two.
So let’s contrast that with the apocryphal story of JFK, who in 1961 visited NASA headquarters. And as part of his visit, he encountered the janitor, he introduced himself and he asked the janitor what it is he did there, to which the janitor replied, “Sir, I’m helping to put a man on the moon”. Now, when I hear that story, however true it is, where I go to with that, is that someone had to have had a conversation with that janitor about Why. Because he didn’t reply by describing what he did, which was just simply mopping or cleaning a floor, he talked about why that was important.
Taken from a different angle, the most successful rugby union team in the world, the New Zealand All Blacks, one of the interesting things that you’ll notice if you ever hear, listen to or read about any of their activities, is the amount of time that they spend as a team talking about the Jersey. Certainly, they talk about the ambition of winning the rugby world cup or being the best team in the world, or tactically, how they’re going to play matches, or who does what on the pitch. They’re all conversations to have, but you’re struck by the extent to which they talk about, and make time to talk about, the Jersey. Talking about the Jersey doesn’t make them any stronger, or more tactically adept, or more skillful, but it does something else. It taps into an inner motivation, an inner inspiration and an inner drive, which all conversations do about the Why. Little wonder then, that their team players, when they’re asked, often reply that when you play New Zealand at rugby, you play a nation, not a team.
So why is it important to talk about the Why. Well, people turn up to work for many different reasons, ranging from the need to earn a paycheck, to look after my family and pay my bills, all the way through to it’s my life’s work. An interesting piece of research by professor William James from Harvard, set out to discover what percentage of people’s capability, actual capability, they needed to bring to work on a daily basis, just to stop themselves from getting fired, i.e. to keep their jobs. And they came up with a number, and the number that they finally arrived at was that people needed to show 31%, so less than a third of what they’re capable of actually, on a daily basis, just to avoid being fired. So that’s the minimum they need to do.
The more interesting number perhaps, is the balance, which is the 69%, which is more than two thirds of the individual capability of everybody who turns to work on a daily basis. This is commonly called discretionary effort. This is at the discretion of the person and they’re going to either spend it, or they’re going to withhold it, depending on a number of factors. The main reason to have a conversation about the Why is to do with this discretionary effort. Because the more connected somebody feels to Why they’re doing things, and the meaning of it, the more likely they are to be motivated and inspired, to give more of this discretionary effort, and which results in a higher performance.
Here are the top five things that leaders routinely complain about to do with their people. The first is people aren’t empowered. They’re not engaged. They don’t take personal accountability or responsibility. They don’t create or innovate, and they don’t take the initiative. Any of those things sound familiar? All of these things would apply when people feel less connected to the Why, purpose and meaning of what they’re doing on a daily basis.
So if we know it unlocks more discretionary effort, and we know that it obviates some of the key routine items that people complain about that I’ve just mentioned, why don’t leaders initiate and proactively make sure that there is a conversation ongoing about Why? Well, there are at least five reasons.
The first is that most and many leaders, don’t even appreciate or know, that this is part of their role. It’s part of their role to motivate and inspire people. But many people don’t see it like that. They’re too busy doing themselves, or experting or managing, and we talked about this in a previous episode, where we talked about the leadership contribution and the leaders ladder.
The second is that you roughly have a division of leaders, between those who are biased towards task, and those who are biased towards people. And for those who are more biased towards task? Well, they simply don’t value it. To them, a conversation about why we do what we do, why it’s important, why we exist, should stay in philosophy class, or at best, it’s an HR thing.
The third reason why leaders typically don’t do this, is that they make the assumption that everybody knows it already. Just because they’re clear, and they’re connected, and they see and understand the higher purpose and meaning of Why, they believe that everybody else knows the same.
Whilst the first three reasons are more attitudinal, the last two are more practical. Fourth reason is that, time, the time pressure, there are so many things that are urgent, that having a conversation about the Why, it’s important, but it’s never urgent. You see the truth is, there are no consequences today of not doing it. Whereas there are many other things on my list, that there are immediate consequences if I don’t do it.
And the final reason is, even if people see the value, leaders understand why they should do it, and they make the time, they simply don’t know how, which is the ultimate reason to avoid anything.
So let’s talk about how to. We are in a situation with a client at the moment, that’s gone through a global restructure. And as part of that, there’s a department or a division, which has been reshaped. The leadership team are going through a conversation around purpose, and the first step in arriving at the Why, is to actually block out the time, and dedicate time specifically just to this, which in itself is a challenge. The second step is to craft and make sure that you’ve got the right question. So the question for the unit itself and also separately for the leadership team is, why do we exist, and what’s our purpose?
By inviting the 12 members of the leadership team to write down the answer to that question from their view, on the space that is available on one post-it note, what you end up with is 12 different unique answers, and that’s the start of your conversation. The conversation then becomes about what’s the same common thread across all the post-its, and across everybody’s impression and answer to the question, and what’s different. And when that conversation starts to unfold, you end up having a great deal of animation, particularly from people who are normally not very animated. It may take three or four visits to the table to continue this conversation before you get to an ultimate agreement. But by doing that, what you must realize is that the conversations themselves are the important part. And they’re even more important than the result, because people will have been involved, and when people are involved, then they’re fully committed.
And therein lies the difference between a purpose or mission that’s imposed from on high, versus one that people are actively involved in co-creating. People connect with meaning, they don’t connect with words. And they connect through feelings. This is an exercise of the heart, not the mind, but by connecting that way, then you begin to reduce down the level of disempowerment, disengagement, lack of accountability, lack of innovation or creativity and lack of people taking initiative.
To conclude, I’ll leave the last words for this episode to Frederick Nietzsche, who said “he, who has a why to live, can bear almost anyhow.” Until next time, stay safe, stay sane, stay connected. And start with Why.
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