Sunday, September 29, 2013

Is Alignment the Missing Link for Business Success?

One of the primary responsibilities of business leaders is to ensure that their organisations are more successful tomorrow than they are today. They have access to various business tools to help them achieve this goal, including strategy development and implementation; talent management; leadership development; communication strategies; risk analysis; etc. 

And for each of these key business tools there are a multitude of potential solutions offered by a mass of consultancy companies of all shapes and sizes; as well as a host of research findings from competing academic institutions, all offering a solution that might be right for your organisation – if you could only understand what they were actually trying to say and how you should implement it effectively in your organisation. To the extent that many business leaders, especially at the sme level, are rightly skeptical of many of the solutions currently on the table and the price tags they often come with. 

Yet it seems the biggest problem – and possibly the missing link – in optimising business performance is ‘alignment’.  

It might sound obvious that business processes and systems need to be aligned to the organisations vision and goals to ensure they not only optimise performance; but that they also have a real-time ‘aligned’ information flow throughout the company and beyond. Yet some of the largest companies in the world have experienced times when they have invested in the ‘best’ systems and processes in the market only to find that these ‘best’ systems simply didn’t talk to each other – leading to sub-optimal information transfer throughout the company. 

Alignment should be one of the core criteria in strategic thinking; risk analysis thinking; organizational design; process flow; and information technology. Yet surprisingly it is a word that is seldom used outside of the ‘classroom’ and is why organisations of all sizes struggle with optimizing their performance. 

Part of the problem is that alignment of information technology and process flow costs money – and with many organisations still struggling to rebuild and reinvent themselves in the aftermath of the financial crisis – alignment can be viewed as a low priority at this point in time. The ‘internal dialogue’ being that we have managed to survive with these systems or processes not talking to each other up to now – and we’ll just have to ‘make do’ until we can afford to ‘invest in aligning the systems’. Also because there is often a lack of knowledge about ‘aligned’ systems anyway, there is distrust about whether alignment of IT systems specifically is even possible. 

But alignment goes beyond systems and actually starts with people. If your people aren’t aligned to your vision – whether it’s a team’s vision; a department’s vision; a branches vision; or the organisations vision – you will not be performing at your optimum and could in fact have different teams ‘pulling’ in different directions – simply because they are not aligned to the organizational vision and goals. 

Alignment goes beyond communication, involvement and even understanding of an organisations vision, strategy and goals – as alignment ensures that everyone in every position is aligned with everyone else to work together to achieve certain aims. 

It’s a simple concept and unfortunately too often taken for granted after the strategic plan has been rolled out across the organizational structure. But it needs the CEO or a dedicated representative to follow up to ensure the employees at all levels are fully aligned with each other. Otherwise all that happens is one department goes off faster than another – fully understanding their role in the strategic vision (at least within their team) and driving on feeling positive about their involvement – but without realising that their lack of alignment with other departments or individuals is in fact having a negating effect on the organisations optimal performance. 

This lack of alignment can have serious consequences on the organisation as it doesn’t only impact performance but more often than not has a significant impact on motivation and morale – whereby even in those rare organisations that the organisation has full buy-in to their strategy and an understanding from all the staff of what has to be done – the lack of alignment can quite quickly derail the process leading to real confusion and a lack of motivation throughout the organisation – to the extent that the original strategy and exciting future for the organisation doesn’t look so exciting anymore. 

All this because alignment hasn’t been sort and/or monitored on a regular basis – as the original exciting future is still there – the only thing that has changed is the organisations morale.  

So it’s worth spending time to check alignment between people and departments on a regular basis to keep performance and motivation high and in sync with the original strategic vision. And then ensure all the systems and processes are also aligned to give the organisation the right ‘tools’ to meet their objectives.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

How Are We Developing Future Global Leaders?

In a brilliant 2012 article Katherine Holt and Kyoko Seki highlight how people everywhere are asking what it takes to be an effective global leader in the 21st Century. In the past, they tended to look at the United States for guidance, but those days are gone. Although US-based organisations and consulting firms still have disproportionate influence through the competency models they promulgate, many of those models are under siege, particular those that idealise a particular type of leader.
In the epic Global Leadership and Organisational Behaviour Effectiveness (GLOBE) Study they found twenty-two universally desirable leader characteristics such as; trustworthy, encouraging, decisive and communicative.
They also found eight that were universally undesirable including asocial, non-cooperative, egocentric and dictatorial.
Interestingly they found thirty-five traits that were culturally contingent, including enthusiastic, logical, micromanager and risk taker.
As Holt and Seki highlight “with all the shifts happening in the world and in our workforce, we need new types of global leaders to help organisations navigate the complexity of change. We need to collaborate with other disciplines to create leadership models and training tools that will equip global leaders to master new challenges. We also need to step up as global leaders ourselves,” (p.34).
Holt and Seki argue that four shifts are required to help shape effective global leaders;
1) Cultivating the ‘being’ dimension of human experience. Where ‘doing’ is what we do, while ‘being’ is who we are, which is experienced by others as the atmosphere we create. Inter-culturalists estimate that as much as 93% of message interpretation relies on nonverbal channels. Where cultivating the being dimension requires us to get in touch with our identity as well as our energetic presence, and then behaving in more congruent and authentic ways.
2) Developing multicultural effectiveness. While there is no consensus about what intercultural effectiveness means, it involves the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in intercultural situations, along with adapting one’s behaviour to each cultural context – and it also involves appreciating differences and being humble about what we do not know.
3) Appreciating individual uniqueness, in the context of cultural differences. It is well documented that national cultures differ on various dimensions. For example, the United States is high on individualism and low on long-term orientation, whereas Japan is high on both masculinity and uncertainty avoidance, and low on individualism. Leaders must pay attention to the uniqueness of each individual to understand and take advantage of their motivation. Where we need to adopt a holistic perspective that focuses on someone completely, not just their job or country of origin; but we must try to understand each person’s unique strengths as well as their multi-layered cultural identities.
4) Becoming adept at managing paradoxes. According to an article in the Academy of Management Review, Wendy Smith and Marianne Lewis describe paradoxes as ‘contradictory yet interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time’.
Katherine Holt and Kyoko Seki identified ten paradoxes facing global leaders;
a) Strategic and Operational;
b) Take Charge and Empowering;
c) Results and Relationships;
d) Listening and Expressing;
e) Global and Local;
f) Common Group and Uniqueness;
g) Open Minded and Decisiveness;
h) Consistency and Versatility;
i) Humility and Confidence;
j) Doing and Being.
These paradoxes are not just unique to global leaders, in fact many leaders struggle with results and relationships; and listening and expressing. But Katherine and Kyoto’s main point is that “we should try to understand how paradoxes play important roles in our own cultures and organisations and then find ways to strengthen people’s paradoxical mindset and capabilities to deal with them.”
What’s fascinating in this debate about the future of global leadership, is that one could be fooled at thinking this is something new, but ‘we’ have been involved in global trade for centuries and there are many successful global leaders around today – and maybe to save a bit of time we should ask today’s global leaders about what they have learned about ‘success’ in the job – the do’s and don’ts.
We sometimes feel the need to develop something from scratch when the ‘blueprint’ already exists. Also we can sometimes think too deep about the topic losing sight of the simplicity of leadership in its rawest form – which is about motivating employees to follow you towards a predetermined vision in the most optimal way; and hence as the leader or potential leader asking yourself – in my current context what do I need to do and what do I need to learn to allow me to reach that goal.
In conclusion Katherine Holt and Kyoko Seki mention that “the world has a desperate need for better global leaders to navigate all the complex and ambiguous challenges that lie ahead. And professional educators must take responsibility for creating better global leaders in our organisations – starting with developing ourselves as global leaders,” (p.37).
Holt, K. and Seki, K. (2012). Global Leadership Begins With Learning Professionals. Training and Development, May, p.33-37.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Does Passion Influence Business Performance?

In a 2008 article in the journal of the psychology of sport and exercise the authors were able to conclude from their research that “it appears that there are two paths to high-level performance attainment in sport, depending if harmonious or obsessive passion underlies sport engagement. While the path from harmonious passion is conducive to high levels of performance and living a happy life, that from obsessive passion is less reliably related to performance attainment and is unrelated to happiness.” 
We’ve not only seen passionate sports people achieve incredible things, but can probably remember times in our lives when we were passionate about an activity and the difference that made to our training and performance; compared to those activities that we weren’t that passionate about.
In 2010 John Hagel and John Seely Brown, after some intensive research, were able to highlight two dispositions that are closely linked to passion: questing disposition and connecting disposition. A questing disposition addresses the desire to seek out challenges to test one’s performance and achieve new levels of performance. A connecting disposition focuses on the desire to actively seek out people who share one’s interests and who can be helpful in addressing new challenges. 
Their proprietary survey of the US workforce indicated that employees who are passionate about their work are twice as likely to have a questing disposition and a connecting disposition. For companies hoping to overcome mounting performance pressures having passionate workers with these dispositions would significantly improve their likelihood of succeeding. 
Not everyone starts off their career with a feeling of passion about their job or their company; and some people will go through life never feeling any passion for their job – where it is simply a means to an end. 
There seem to be two things that make us passionate about a job and a company. First it’s our own desire to do something well and a desire to strive for more. If we get the opportunity to meet these criteria in a company then the passion seems to come naturally. Which leads to the second key component to passion and that is leadership. 
Effective leaders create the environment for their staff to find the passion they are looking for in their work and their life. But like the joke about how many psychologists it takes to change a light bulb – only one, but the light bulb has to want to change; the same is true for people – if they don’t have any passion left in them – then the leader might give them the environment to find the passion again – but they simply won’t embrace it, often becoming negative ‘blocks’ for progress and change.
John Hagel and John Seely Brown found that passion levels remain very low within the US workforce where under 25% of the workers are passionate about their work.  And there’s an even bigger problem for large companies. Where they further postulate that the level of passion in the workforce is inversely related to the size of the company - hence the larger the company, the lower the level of passion among the workers.  The most passionate workers are those who are self-employed or working as independent contractors. 
However this is probably taking the generalisation just a bit too far, which is a shame as their work is excellent. There are definitely large corporations out there where you can feel the passion as you walk into their lobby; just as much as there are small ones with no passion whatsoever.  
But where there is passion, there is a feeling of a special kind of energy in the air as people walk about the building with purpose and a smile – you might not know exactly what it is, but you can feel the passion. 
The saddest thing to watch is managers and executives that have lost the passion for work and their organisation. Who go to work for the money and the benefits – but who have lost the ‘passion’ to inspire anymore and who just go about their work day-in day-out, never looking to change, challenge or improve. These people fear change as it challenges the status quo and their utopian environment. What’s even sadder is that these managers and executives often don’t even realise that they’ve part of the organisations problem rather than its solution.
The best organisations have leaders that inspire passion from their employees; as much as they have employees that are passionate about their roles, the organisation and the future.
Valleranda, R.J., Mageauc, G.A., Elliotb, A.J., Dumaisc, A., Demersd, M.A., and Rousseaue, F. (2008). Psychology of Sport and Exercise. Vol 9, Issue 3, p. 373–392.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Do We Really Understand the Impact of Cheating?

According to Frank, Gilovic, and Regan (1996), business students, who are future business practitioners, are likely to be less ethical than students in other faculties, and may be more prone to cheating. Furthermore, the frequency of cheating in universities has been found to be substantially related to the propensity to cheat at work (Lawson, 2004).  
In recent research it has been found that cheating among undergraduates has become rampant (Simkin & McLeod, 2010). Furthermore, according to research results, the frequency of cheating increased between 1940 and 1982; Ogilby (1995) found that self-reported undergraduate cheating increased from 23% to 84% during that period, (p.933).
Jianfeng Yang’s aim in a recent study was to bridge gap in the current literature using the theory of planned behavior to predict Chinese business students’ cheating behavior – an investigation that is, to my knowledge, the first in which this topic has been studied empirically, (p.934).
In the 21st century Chinese undergraduates are growing up in a market economy with uniquely Chinese characteristics, where more and more business organizations, government departments, and academic institutions have become entangled in various scandals. An example of one such scandal is that of Sanlu, Milk Powder. The Sanlu Group, a leading Chinese dairy producer, found some of its milk powder products were contaminated with melamine, a chemical raw material, but did not order an immediate recall of the affected products.
As a result, tainted milk powder caused hundreds of infants to develop kidney stones. Like their Western counterparts (McCabe & TreviƱo, 1996), Chinese undergraduates feel skeptical when they arrive on campus and hear orientation speeches about the lofty virtues of education, and many of them think those virtues have nothing to do with the real world. Advertisements for cheating instruments are posted all around the campus at Chinese universities, in such places as toilets, dormitories, and stairways, (p.934).
The theory of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1985), an extension of the theory of reasoned action (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), has received strong endorsement in a wide variety of volitional behavior domains (Ajzen, 1991; Armitage & Conner, 2001; Elliott, Armitage, & Baughan, 2003). According to the theory of planned behaviour, behavioral intentions and perceived behavioral control are the main determinants of behavior. Intentions are determined independently by attitudes toward the behavior, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control (Ajzen, 1985; Elliott et al., 2003). The core difference between the theory of reasoned action and the theory of planned behaviour is that – according to the latter – perceived behavioral control is included as a determinant of behavior and intention. Both theories posit that people are rational and make systematic use of information available to them when making decisions (Chang, 1998). The theory of reasoned action even posits that behaviors are under the total volitional control of the performers, (p.935)
Perceived behavioral control refers to the perception of the difficulty or ease of performing the target behavior. There are two common definitions of perceived behavioral control. The first, like self-efficacy, refers to an individual’s belief that he or she has the capacity to behave in a particular way and to overcome any obstacles he or she might encounter (Hurtz & Williams, 2009). The second refers to perceptions of the presence or absence of facilitating factors (e.g., resources and instruments) that would enable or prohibit the behavior. For example, in the case of student cheating, if students can access cheating instruments easily, they would be more likely to cheat.
So what does this mean for the future of business and potential future business leaders if the perception at undergraduate level is that ‘cheating’ is an acceptable risk – a behavior ‘learnt’ from students perceptions of the business environment.
Business commentators often have a ‘chuckle’ when some corporate heavyweight is caught in some misdemeanor, but they regularly forget the impact this has on many impressionable students. Should they know better – absolutely – but it doesn’t help the future cause of business when serious misconduct is often rewarded with celebrity style publicity and a simple slap on the wrist for the offending executive.
Remember we reap what we sow; and hence we should be very careful about the image we portray about what is and what is not acceptable business practice.
Yang, J. (2012). Predicting Cheating Behavior: A Longitudinal Study with Chinese Business Students. Social Behavior and Personality. Vol. 40, Issue 6, p.933-944.