Crossing the finish line

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The London Marathon is coming to town soon.  The streets get busier at this time of the year as runners are out at all hours, and obviously in all weather – Spring has not yet sprung.  People run for charity, for pleasure, for a challenge – and always for pain.  They push themselves to the limit, sometimes over, and raise tons of cash.

I watched the first London Marathon in 1981 with my son – he’s running this year for his first marathon, and raising £2,000 for British Heart Foundation.  Tens of thousands are doing the same for a whole slew of charities.  I once ran as a sub for a friend who got injured and so started among the charity runners at the back with his friends – I had never seen that world before as I’m usually further forward, so it was a real eye opener.  It was when the caterpillar passed us that I forgot a time and thought of the event.  However, when the friends said for me to go ahead while they walked, my competitive spirit kicked in and I was off – elbowing my way past folk for the next 15 miles.

The marathon is only one example of the energy people throw into their lives outside work.  Many others are in church choirs, chair committees, campaign for their passion, organise anything from a sports team to a community.  And what do they do when they come to work?  As Gary Hamel has observed: One doesn’t have to be a Marxist to by awed by the scale and success of early 20th century efforts to transform strong-willed human beings into docile employees.  These efforts still carry on today.  Why is it that when people come to work they get the stuffing knocked out of them? Let me suggest three inter-linked areas that Top Leaders can focus on to change this.

First is accountability.  Do you trust your people to get on and do it?  If you don’t, then you only have yourself to blame when things go wrong, and your signals will be loud and clear.  Douglas McGregor back in 1960 postulated Theory X and Theory Y (some of the old models are still the best).  He wrote about the way in which managers manage, depending on their assumptions made about human behaviour.  McGregor grouped these assumptions into:

  • Theory X – authoritarian, repressive style; tight control, no development; produces limited, depressed culture
  • Theory Y – liberating and  developmental; control, achievement and continuous improvement achieved by enabling, empowering and giving responsibility

Which is your default?  As ever the truth is somewhere in between, but you get the drift.  The problem for Top Leaders is that pace-setting leads into the Theory X mode.  Ask yourself, if people do all that stuff outside work, then what is stopping them doing it inside?

Second is responsibility, which is linked to accountability.  Many Top Leaders will have heard Keith Grint speak about Adaptive approaches to leadership.  This is about giving responsibility back to those who have the nous, means and motivation to tackle the problem.  If someone can get up at 5am and train for the London Marathon, eat the right stuff and stay off the liquor, then what is missing from this person who you manage?  As observed by the proponents of adaptive leadership Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky:  People do not resist change.  They resist loss.  So don’t take away, give back.

Finally, appraisals.  Think about it.  You talk to your people, you find out what they do, what they could do, you agree what good looks like and what they can bring to the party.  They have all that outside initiative that has been kept away from work, which others tap into instead.  Time at work is spent dreaming of the potential outside, not inside.  Appraisals are meaningful conversation.  It takes time.  But it solves so many of your problems.  It’s what I call the leverage issue.  As Robert Caro observed about the legacy of Lyndon Johnson, LBJ solved the civil rights turmoil of 1960’s America by giving blacks the vote.  That was his leverage issue – an appraisal is yours.

Staff will cross the finish line if they want to.  You have to help them cross yours.  BTW I’m not in London this year, but if you know of a place, then please let me know as I’m all set to cross the line on 21 April!