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A shake – or a hug

Sometimes I want to give the people who run our government, banks and largest companies a shake.

Yesterday at a meeting of the MDHub in Brighton I listened to a fascinating presentation by Jeremy Beckwith of Kleinwort Benson about the state of our global economy. It was a story of how all governments since the last World War, aided and abetted by the banks and large corporations, have systematically grown our public debt to a point where our economy is in such a state that no one will lend us any money. Where we can’t borrow to spend our way out of our troubles. Where things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

Other highlights:

  • nearly every country in the world is in dire financial state
  • there are many further backed-up economic problems to come
  • some countries will almost inevitably drop out of the Euro, causing untold disruption
  • 40 million Americans are receiving food stamps
  • if you’re relying on a state pension, you better make alternative plans
  • large private corporations are making record profits – based on population growth and a resulting unskilled global labour price of $2 a day
  • economic policy is out of control: we are entering a twilight zone of currency wars and other unknowns.

Oh, and the good news? Gold is at a record high. If you want to live somewhere with a reasonable economy, well you could move to New Zealand, Australia or Sweden. If they’ll have you.

So why do I want to shake them? These people who run our government, banks and largest companies? Because my first reaction is that they seem to be asleep. Asleep as they wave their children off to their private schools. As they play with their Blackberries and laptops. As they tramp from their cars and trains to their glass sky-scrapers.

Obviously these aren’t theoretical problems, in some economic text book. There are real people out there, millions and millions of them, suffering the indignity of relying on a government for benefit, having to leave home and hearth to chase that $2 a day, suffering the uncertainty of losing their home, their job, their income.

But the strange thing is I also know that many government leaders, and bankers, and the leaders of large corporations are, like all of us, trying to do the right thing. They want the best for themselves and their families, yes. But they also want the best for the rest of us too. Just as I do. Just as you do.

Of course, if asked, they’d also say that we sleep-walked too – the rest of us. And, I agree, it would be failing to acknowledge our share of the responsibility to suggest that we didn’t enjoy the good years. Why didn’t we ask those difficult questions – like how does the economy work, or why are we building up all that debt – when there was still time? Do we have so little self-responsibility we’ll just blame them for our current situation?

And I guess, if I think about it for a moment, that it hurts those government leaders, and bankers, and CEOs too – and especially it hurts them to know that all their brains and money and power and effort didn’t help them make things better.

To know that they failed.

So maybe what I really want to do is give them a hug.


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What are you accountable for?

I love clear roles and responsibilities.

I bang on about them endlessly. To the point of driving some of the people I work with crazy.

What do I mean by clear? I mean written down. I mean completely unambiguous. Completely focussed. Like a laser beam. Sharp, accurate and to the point.

A Format

The format I usually prefer is a Role Purpose statement – just one (or possibly two) simple statements that sum up the role.

Like “Make money for the company”. “Make sure we have the information we need to manage the business”. “Find us new customers”. “Ensure we have the best team on the planet”.

It must be only one or two things – more and people can’t hold them in their minds. Too many goals creates confusion – internally.

And then a list of Responsibilities. No more than 7 or 8 (one of the few papers I remember from my first degree was on the “magic number 7”).

Things that support the Purpose, like “Create the processes we need to supply accurate and timely information”, “Recruit and manage a team”, “Work with the other directors to grow the business”, etc.

Why am I so obsessed with this?

Why am I so obsessed by these single sheets of paper (I usually suggest we add in a few KPIs for good luck)?

Because they are one of the best ways I know to create an opportunity for real accountability in a company. If the role description is clear, then holding people to account is easy. If it is wooly – well, then anything can happen, and usually does.

I am also obsessed by empowerment. I believe deeply that people should be given, and take, all the responsibility they need. I don’t believe it works for people to tell other people what to do – except in exceptional circumstances.

So, a clear role is a complement to this. It’s the Yin to the Yang.

In my view, everyone in a conscious business needs an individual, clear and unambiguous role description that describes their Role Purpose and Responsibilities. Make no mistake, these can’t be imposed from above. They need to be agreed – that is, taken on by each individual, and “owned”.

They shouldn’t overlap – or we reintroduce ambiguity. And they need to fit together as a set – so that everything really important gets done.

Without them no one can hold anyone to account, we fail to get the collective results we need as a team, and we lose our focus on our business imperatives. The things that keep our businesses alive.

WIIFM

And whose responsibility is it to ensure that everyone has these? Mine. Yours. Everybody’s. All of us that want great results from our companies.

What’s in it for me? How does it help me, or anyone else, to define my own responsibilities? Well, my life becomes simpler. I can focus. I am clear what I need to do. Maybe more importantly, I am clear what I don’t. Doing less is the key to a life of sanity.

And truly, being held to account is a good thing – not a bad thing. We sometimes think that accountability benefits the person doing the holding to account. But I think there is even more benefit to the person being held to account: we learn.

Feedback on what we do and how we do it is perhaps the most useful gift we can get from others in life.

I feel really annoyed with myself when I let people off the hook on this. But, sadly, I do. Note to self: clarify my role.


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Owning the problem

I am going to write today about the topic of responsibility.

This is a difficult post to write because I really want to avoid coming across in a self-righteous way. I know that I have that weakness – it is very easy for me to step into a hyper-critical, hyper-intellectual mode; and the result is that other people feel criticised, patronised and so on.

But responsibility feels so important to me that I think I need to take that risk. When I say it feels so important, I mean that when I think about it I almost shake with emotion, which is both scary and exciting. But that also triggers warning bells – is that self-righteousness bubbling up?

And is that self-righteousness just a mask for deeper feelings of inadequacy – in my own attitudes and behaviour? How often do I take real responsibility myself?

But what can I do about that – other than write and see where it  leads? After all I write mainly for my own edification. So here goes.

In the companies where I work, I usually place great stress on the definition of roles and responsibilities. I think this is a fairly normal thing to do – don’t most people believe that role definitions, or role specifications, are one of those important bits of HR “stuff” that every company needs?

But I am generally very against “HR” (something I might discuss elsewhere). So why the emphasis on this bit of paperwork that in so many cases is written and then filed away never to be looked at again?

I think it’s because of responsibility. The kind of role definition I like contains a statement of purpose, a list of responsibilities, and one or two other important things. What I am trying to achieve by encouraging people to write and take responsibility for a clear role definition is to add a vital anchor, an anchor that makes it possible to operate in a “sea of change”.

I like organisations where there is a lot of personal and organisational freedom. A lot of flexibility. I think this is essential for creativity and resilience to emerge. Free and flexible organisations also allow a lot of error and conflict, and more worryingly, it is possible for things to fall through the gaps.

For me clear role definition provides stability and context. But only under certain conditions. Only when people take their responsibility seriously. What does that mean?

For example, I can imagine the situation where someone is asked to keep costs “within budget”. And the response to that is to follow the instruction to the letter of the law.

Most of us can do that – work to rule when we want to. “Did you do the shopping?” “Yes, I went to the shops.”

But did you really do the shopping? Doing the shopping, at least in my house, isn’t about going to the shops. Doing the shopping is about ensuring that there is enough healthy, nutritious, delicious and varied food in the house for the next few days. This is what my wife and I have agreed “doing the shopping” means.

I can easily say “Yes, I went to the shops”, but return with no bread, no milk, no fruit. Or the bread can be stale, the fruit tasteless, and so on.

So for me, taking responsibility isn’t about working to rule. It’s not about saying “Yes, the expenditure is within budget”.

It’s about first determining what that phrase “within budget” means.

And it usually means something much broader: the expenditure is an excellent investment, won’t limit the growth and development of the company, is one of a small number of absolute top priorities and so on.

Taking responsibility is about considering the whole picture, thinking laterally, considering and reducing risks (the supermarket might be closed; I’ll go to the farmers’ market instead), and being very proactive: taking steps to constantly improve (I know the family will eventually get bored with the same old fare; what can I do to liven things up?) .

But that makes it sound very intellectual. It’s more than that. It’s a gut thing. It’s about “owning” the responsibility in a very personal, visceral, scary, exciting and deep way. It’s about connecting deeply with the emotions that come with the responsibility.

It’s about leading not managing. About an ethical position too: doing the right thing. As well as doing things right.

In this view of responsibility nothing – and I mean absolutely nothing – will stop the achievement of the aimed-for result.

Do I always achieve that myself? No, of course not. That’s where there’s a risk of self-righteousness.

But I do think this form of real responsibility, and the accountability that goes with it, is really worth striving for. In fact, it’s absolutely essential to making an organisational model based on distributed leadership work.


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All hail the leader

Is it just me, or is it generally assumed that leadership is something that other people do?

For example, we generally deem leaders to be special people. They get extra attention. They need to be studied. Leaders have “strengths”.

Those strengths are nearly always positive: leaders are thought to be articulate, wise, empathic and so on. And with just a little more effort, a little more diligence, they could go from being “good” to being “excellent”.

Ordinary people seem more likely to have weaknesses. We just are. We get on with the boring day-to-day activities while the leaders lead – somewhere up there in the stratosphere. We’re simply not in the same league.

This is starting to sound dangerously like a self-esteem problem – in me. If only I was a bit more self-confident, self-aware, talented and above all hard working and diligent then I too could become a “leader”. And oh how happy I would be, if I could only share in some of what those special people have.

But what if leadership isn’t an attribute to be conferred on only the annointed? What if leadership is a set of behaviours that is available to every one of us?

What if it’s a personal thing? Something we can all do, even the lowly and the least talented? What then?

And what if leadership isn’t really as complicated as some experts would have us believe? What if it’s simply being clear, at least to ourselves, who we are and what is important to us; and then living in that way, consistently, to reach our highest ideals?

Of course, if that was the case, and we all led in a personal sense, would we need the other sort of leader? Those at the top of the pile?

There are reasons why we wouldn’t want to even consider this, of course.

Not being one of the leaders makes it’s  easier for me to blame them for my condition. Whether it’s politicians, corporate and financial leaders, or even religious leaders – they’re the ones who are really responsible for my troubles.

And I’m not saying it’s easy to lead. Maybe it’s easier to let others take the lead? Maybe that’s why we need to leave it to the “special” people?

But there’s a problem with letting others lead.

For one, it doesn’t seem to have got us to such a good place. The economy’s in collapse. Politicians are besmirched. The planet’s being destroyed. The poverty gap is growing. Our livelihoods are at risk.

Letting others lead us towards their goals seems dangerous.

Surely we do need leaders don’t we? Where would we be without any leaders to rescue us, to save us?

That seems to me a little like saying “where would we be without economic growth?” That’s a paradigm that we have adopted blindly for years. And look where it has got us.

Maybe now’s the time to reconsider our system of leadership.  Not just how we select leaders, and who they are, but who we call a leader.