A Time To…………
By Rowan Jackson with help from Stephen Bungay
A recent call with one of our more impressive and thoughtful clients prompted another realisation about the pandemic. She pointed out that working from home (WFH) had given many employees a degree of autonomy that many had desired for years and had not had. The authority delegated to them by the pandemic to decide how they should work is, for many, refreshing. It increases their desire to continue with the new WFH ways for as long as possible.
A time to…………change the way we lead
Her remarks reminded me of the many hours spent using the leadership grid with our clients on the leadership programmes that we delivered in the 1990s. The grid is here.
In our workshops we pointed out that high performing organisations are on a journey to be in the top right, ascendancy, box and we facilitated many conversations with the leaders about what they might do to get there.
The alignment axis is, of course, about clear direction and purpose. To what extent do our people understand where we are going and how we plan to get there?
The autonomy axis is harder to move to the right; it requires a coordinated approach by all leaders in any organisation to delegate authority as far down as possible and to feel comfortable doing so. As we perceived in our workshops, many leaders found this very hard; especially those whose “in the office” style of leading can be described as micro-managing. An organisation we know described how immensely stressful the pandemic had been on those middle managers who used this style. With their teams working from home, their default style simply didn’t work and, not knowing what to do, they were forced to change to a totally unfamiliar way of leading. The pandemic is changing the way all of us must lead.
A time for…………learning from history
The leadership grid has been around for decades. The master military historian Dr Stephen Bungay uses the leadership grid in his brilliant book “The Art of Action” and traces its roots back to the famous victory by Napoleon against the Prussian army at the battle of Jena-Auerstedt on 14 October 1806. The formidably well disciplined, well-trained and drilled, (highly aligned), Prussians were easily outmanoeuvred and defeated by the highly motivated (but far less well-drilled) and highly autonomous troops led by Napoleon’s dynamic young marshals.
As a leader, Napoleon won a string of battles. You can see them listed on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. His success engendered trust and faith in him as a leader. He believed strongly in delegating authority to leaders he trusted and expected them to deliver. One of them, the mercurial maverick Marshall Ney, performed so unconventionally that in the battle of Jena Napoleon had to commit his reserve to rescue Ney from the mess he got into. Despite this Napoleon continued to trust him. Sadly, eight years later at Quatres Bras, the day before Waterloo, Ney’s errors caused Napoleon to make major adjustments to his plan, giving Wellington, assisted by the last minute arrival of the Prussians, a chance to defeat him.
The outcome of this for today? The psychological impact of Jena on the Prussians was such that they set a major investigation into the cause of defeat and, as a result, military forces to this day seek to engender a culture of high alignment and high autonomy. The primary thinker behind this was General Carl von Clausewitz who was present at Jena and wrote his famous book “Vom Kriege” (On War) after it. More relevant than ever, von Clausewitz’s thinking, expanded by von Moltke, is seen today in the small highly trained multidisciplinary teams used by a special forces to disrupt and neutralise much bigger military organisations that lack alignment, autonomy and agility. It was von Moltke who invented the Leadership Grid. McKinsey wrote a paper on how organisations may use such teams in the pandemic in 2020.
Historians tell us also that pandemics have a Darwinian impact on people and organisations, only the fittest survive. They point out that the period after a pandemic is one of huge dynamic change at great speed and with enormous political, economic, social and technological consequences. It is a time to change and we’re in it now.
A time to…………apply new ways
Some organisations have used the leadership grid for years. The Nissan factory in Sunderland was built around it. In his book “The Ascendant Organisation”, the HR director of Nissan, Peter Wickens, explains how Nissan developed the 4 box grid into a 9 box version with considerably more detail and huge success. Its UK factory outperforms all other Nissan factories globally.
Spotify use the grid in their engineering culture and two videos here and here show exactly how they do it. These are must-see videos if you wish to create empowered aligned teams. These examples show how it is done and build on the leadership grid in Stephen Bungay’s book.
One of the unintended consequences of the pandemic has been The Great Resignation, also called The Great Attrition. We are in a period of considerable employee turnover. One research showed that 25% of UK employees are considering a job change at this moment.
McKinsey point out that organisations with poor leadership are finding out, to their cost, the risks involved in not having an aligned and empowered organisation. A recent article explains the risks of not understanding employee needs and, more vitally, their changed expectations of an ideal employer.
“But this won’t be easy, because it requires companies and their leaders to truly understand their employees. It requires leaders to develop a much deeper empathy for what employees are going through and to pair that empathy with the compassion—and determination—to act and change. Only then can employers properly re-examine the wants and needs of their employees—together with those employees—and begin to provide the flexibility, connectivity, and sense of unity and purpose that people crave.”
Employee expectations have changed dramatically in the last two years and will continue to do so. Employers that understand and measure their performance versus these new expectations will emerge as the new leaders in a more employee-driven labour market.
The same applies for those that understand and measure their customers’ expectations which, like those of their employees, have changed dramatically. It is truly a time to revisit the Leadership Grid.
As words from Ecclesiastes put it:
Happy Christmas from all of us at Promising Outcomes.