Re-imagining the workplace for greater productivity

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Austin Okere, Ausso Leadership Academy
Austin Okere, Founder of Ausso Leadership Academy

I was a guest speaker at a workshop a couple of months ago to share insights about my entrepreneurial journey at CWG Plc. We founded CWG Plc in 1992 and listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange in 2013 as the largest security in the technology sector, which is still today.

Perhaps, because the attendants at the conference were mostly Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders, the discussion was dominated by the complex relationships between employers and employees. What shocked me most, was that more than 70% of the delegates had a deep distrust of their employees:

  • Staff are not loyal
  • Staff are ungrateful and always disgruntled
  • Staff are stealing or doing underhand deals
  • Staff are resigning without notice and consideration
  • The biggest complaint by far was that staff are running their own businesses on the side; most times in the same business segment

What they did not realize was that a recent survey had also revealed that almost one-third of workers were cynical about their organization and her leaders. It is said that all Leadership is about managing change, the rest is all management.

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Jack Welch affirms this in his quote – When the rate of change in the marketplace exceeds the rate of change in the organization, the end is in sight…

As Business Leaders, we are forced to change from both internal and external pressures;

  • Markets and Customers (external)
  • Regulation Requirements (external)
  • Technology (external)
  • Competitive Pressures
  • Leadership (Internal)

While leadership is about change, management is about preservation; and therein lies the source of internal conflict. The staff is usually suspicious of the motives of the leadership initiating change. This is accentuated when the change does not seem to have the three distinctive characteristics of – Intensity, Integrity and Intelligence.

The survey showed that change at work was linked to Employee Stress, Distrust and Intent to quit. So, let us say the distrust between employers and employees is mutual. Why is this so, and could there a balance?

My take is that many organizations do not clearly define their purpose or their cause (i.e. WHY they exist and why anybody should care). A Purpose and vision that employees can believe in and want to be a part of. In my experience, it is not all about the pay, but also about self-worth and pride in the job; the notion of being part of something special.

Employees reported having more trust in their companies when the organization recognizes them for their contributions, provides opportunities for involvement and communicates effectively.

Everyone has a Part to Play

When JFK visited the Apollo base station, he stopped by and asked a janitor what he was doing. The man proudly replied we are trying to land a man on the moon, Sir. Firstly, the best people to attract to your organization are people who believe in what you believe in.

People who come to work for you because they believe in your cause or purpose will work with their sweat and blood and not just for the paycheck. Think Mahatma Gandhi and the fight for self-rule in India. Think the ANC freedom fighters and Nelson Mandela.

Think about Martin Luther King; Dr King did not go about telling people what his right was, from a logical standpoint. He just told people what he believed. He gave the “I have a dream” speech and not “I have a plan” speech.

Essentially, he believed that there are two sets of laws, by Man and by God; and that sometimes the Laws of Man go against the laws of God, and he intends to choose the law of God in those cases (he believes that all men are created equal and was fighting for the end of segregation against Black People in America).

People showed up to listen to Dr King, not for him but for themselves! Martin Luther King Jr. gives his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech to a crowd of over 250 thousand people before the Lincoln Memorial during the Freedom March in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963 (this was before the age of internet and social media – just to appreciate the scale and impact!).

The widely quoted speech became one of his most famous. People who believed what Dr King believed took it and made it their belief and propagated it. This is how to lead even in the workplace.

What we realize is that there are leaders, and there are those who lead. Leaders have authority, while those who lead, inspire us. We follow them not because we have to, but because we want to. They go about inspiring others or looking for others to inspire them.

Yes, We can!

To buttress this point; how much do you think Barack Obama’s campaign paid the thousands of volunteers who worked tirelessly to get him elected? The money was not as important as the vision and conviction. ‘Yes, we can’! We heard them chanting from the bottom of their hearts all day long on CNN.

They were working hard to bring about ‘a change we can believe in’. The same dynamics held for Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for self-rule in India, and Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid rule in South Africa. They were more about the conviction in the vision of a free India and South Africa and a free America; which held all men equal; than the financial rewards. And that was why against all odds, they turned out every day to follow their leader, notwithstanding the risk to their personal lives. One could argue that these are movements and not exactly your typical organizations, but I would say the same scenario plays out even in business…

Happy Staff, Willing Ambassadors

Many Management books talk about pride in working for great companies such as Coca-Cola, Chrysler and IBM; and more recently, Google, Tesla, and Facebook and Infosys. I recently read that it will be hard to tempt anybody working for Elon Musk even with a 50% additional salary offer.

Here in Nigeria, GT Bank is a good example of what could qualify as Corporate Apostles. The GT Bank Staff were so proud to belong to the company, and so loyal to the brand, even when they left the bank.

The CWG Story…

It is exactly this culture that we created at CWG Plc; the culture of touching a heart and asking for a hand. 

Many employers are so disconnected from their employees that they would easily miss a major tragedy in their personal circumstances; And this is not saying that we should run a nursery, but at the same time, employees are not machines, they are emotional beings.

A little empathy can go a long way. I call it gathering coins of goodwill in your pocket. People joined our company because they believed in our WHY – providing technology solutions that enable growth.

It helped greatly that we run an open and equitable system. Nothing is hidden. Nothing needs to be; if we are co-travellers on a common journey to a common destination.

Openness engenders trust and engagement – lack of effective communication leaves room for dangerous rumours. Everybody knows when we are doing well, and also when the tide is against us.

At one of our most challenging periods, following the global financial meltdown, we all agreed to a temporary 30% cut in commissions, which will be accumulated and paid when our fortune turned (and Yes; everybody had a fixed and variable salary as part of skin in the game). Our contemporaries asked jokingly what I had given the staff at CWG that made them so loyal to the company.

Perhaps it is this something about CWG that interested both Columbia Business School (CBS) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to write case studies on the company for their MBA curricula. I speak about CWG Plc because this is the company I know.

Our mantra was to treat everybody as an owner so that they see the big picture. The staff have very high autonomy and there is a deep alignment, and therefore they displayed a deep sense of responsibility and accountability. We embrace mistakes as part of learning, albeit you cannot make the same mistake twice!

The story of the two soldiers

Let me illustrate this point with the fabled case of two army recruits who were asked to capture a bridge. The one was just following orders and came back to report that the bridge had been blown. The other knew that the objective was to move critical supplies into the region.

When he saw that the bridge had been blown, he went to look for another bridge and secured it. This was because he knew his role and how important it was in the whole value chain. Same objective, same instructions but different attitudes.

The root of the evil…

On this thorny issue of a balance between employer and employees’ interest in the organization, I posit that distrust occurs when:

  • either the employer has not been able to motivate the employees to believe in the cause, or
  • the employees do not feel that the rewards of the cause are equitably distributed.

When the soldiers brought King David a cup of water in the desert when he was thirsty during a war, what did he do? He poured it on the ground. Let us all be thirsty than one man quenches his thirst. And how committed do you think his soldiers would be? In many companies you see the leaders living lavishly and flying first class while asking staff to tighten their belts even further.

The other thing I have seen in many organizations is that the Founder/ Visioners are exceptional performers because they are the custodians of purpose and vision. As the organization grows and expands the purpose is lost and the vision becomes diluted because it is not re-installed.

All we do to welcome new members during induction is basically the Human Resource Head introducing the new hire around the office and showing him to his desk. But this is not enough; what is needed is immersion; where they are inculcated into the purpose, vision and values of the company as if they were joining a startup

By the way, vision is not something you frame and hang on walls of your Reception and Conference room. Vision is what we wear in our hearts and live by. This is accentuated by the tone at the top (I.e. The leader walking the talk). It is important for the vision to be cascaded down so that the whole organization moves in lock-step as a team.

Another burdensome issue is that some employees, especially those long in the company complain of being passed over during promotions into leadership positions. My strong advice to you is that If you crave leadership at work, practice leadership out of work by volunteering for community causes or at Church, Mosque or Temple. This way you hone your leadership skills and get a lot of feedback for a rounded development. This will make you more noticeable for a Leadership role in the organization.

Let them go…

Let us face it. Not all hires are a fit for the team, and not all leaders will display values that are in consonance with yours. We should know when it has come time to turn the next chapter of our lives. If you feel that parting way is an inevitable outcome, it is good to exhibit trust by having a frank conversation.

Disengagement should be as cordial as possible so that you preserve a relationship and leave a window open. We will not know tomorrow and its needs

Sometimes, staff does not improve beyond the skill they were employed for even after being in the firm for over a decade albeit with annual salary increases. What ends up happening is that the staff is being paid way too much for what he is doing – a new hire can do the same thing for much less.

There is a theory I call the I, T, H, square and round theory – let me explain. The I-Person has learnt no additional skill since he joined the company, the T-Person has learnt an additional skill, the H-Person has learnt two additional skills, while the square person has four skills and with the All-Rounder, there is no boundary between where on skill stops and another starts.

When a staff is struggling, the Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) seems more often than not a final humiliation to justify his sack. I say instead of putting the staff on a forced PIP, first ask them whether they want to improve and whether they are ready to deal with the discomfort of learning. If the answer is no, then any attempted help will be a waste of time. Perhaps it is better for both parties to part ways amicably.

Technology and our relationships…

Let me finally touch on technology and its double-edged sword in organizational relationships. Technology could be a bridge or a barrier depending on how it is used in the Firm. Technology enables connections, but does not necessarily enhance relationships. Relationship is key, because relationship is influence, and influence is leadership.

A recent study shows that of 130 Facebook Friends, a teenager can only rely on three. Our millennials are used to breaking up relationships with a mere text message, and yet, they are going to be tomorrow’s workforce. 

This will have a real impact in the workplace, wherein they may think they have connections, but what they really have are weak relationships.

One face to face encounter is often better and more effective than 100 emails, especially when trying to resolve a delicate situation. It is very difficult to feel connected to a sense of purpose or to our colleagues, or indeed feel a part of anything special if we over-rely on technology for communication.

It is noteworthy that investing time and resources into social functions at the workplace (which should not be dominated by work discussions) serves to strengthen the bonds among colleagues and with the leaders. I used to give a shout-out to the staff having their birthdays, and everybody joined in.

People began to look forward to it and join in it. Periodic out of office engagements go a long way to strengthen relationships.

Summing it all up

As the workplace becomes more diversified, it may be expedient to expand your horizon and foster integration by working with people who have the same values, while also talking to people from different backgrounds. Above all Leading self, is as important as leading others.

The best place to look for the change you desire is usually within YOU!

Austin Okere is the Founder of CWG Plc, the largest ICT Company on the Nigerian Stock Exchange & Entrepreneur in Residence at CBS, New York. Austin also serves on the Advisory Board of the Global Business School Network, and on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Innovation and Intrapreneurship. Austin now runs the Ausso Leadership Academy focused on Business and Entrepreneurial Mentorship.

Being a keynote address delivered by Austin Okere to the Indian Professional Association at their December 2018 monthly Forum.

 

 

 

 

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