Leading through tough times - who cares?

by External02 Jul 2012

One business leader from a high performing business unit within a top ASX organisation recently reflected on her achievement of 90% employee engagement. She doesn’t claim to be a natural leader – indeed she is a strong technical expert – but she highlighted that her primary management focus was just doing these leadership basics consistently and rigorously for her people. This had led to minimal attrition of strong performers, an increase in discretionary effort and a virtuous cycle in business, customer and staff metrics. Her team knew she cared. They responded with innovation and commitment – and results. Aside from the exceptional employee engagement scores, this leader’s business unit achievements were recognised within the organisation as a truly high performing.

Doing these leadership basics with fanatic discipline shows people the leader cares.

Finding a higher purpose – why employees care

Leaders showing care is only half of the equation. Many businesses faced with shifting market conditions panic. They change their approach annually, restructure routinely and adopt the next big leadership fad. Most of us have probably worked for one. Among the signs are: multiple change programs and headcount reduction exercises but with a growing staff base; little time is invested post organisation change to embed new ways of working – just continuing with the old ways but in a new structure; little clarity of the organisational goal aside from cost reduction. 

In an example of successful response to dramatic business crisis, Energis UK (now part of Cable & Wireless), was in receivership when a new leadership team took the reins. They started, not with the underlying failings of the strategy, but with a dramatic investment in establishing the ‘reason’ for the organisation. This was a wholehearted commitment, far removed from the usual paper exercise, and led to a primary focus on the values, purpose and goals of the organisation. A compulsory, weekly team cascade, led by the CEO, identified the highlights and lowlights of the week and was communicated in a structure around the organisation values. This served to reinforce the purpose of the organisation, but importantly ensured a connection to the financial goals, customer experience and values of the business. It highlighted the consistency and rigour of great leadership – and was no surprise given that many of the Energis board became the Cable and Wireless board, only a year later, in a ‘reverse’ takeover.

eBay ANZ also invested strongly insharing the higher purpose of the company. The business ensured regular contact between staff (including functional staff) and community (buyers and sellers who were the customers of the site); sharing stories from their user base about how eBay had benefitted Australians; promoting each week the media stories about the business (whether good or bad); running internal competitions around staff use of products and only hiring job candidates who were already active users of the site. eBay ANZ saw a truly significant increase in key business metrics, not only against the Australian market, but also relative to other global eBay business units. 

Both Energis and eBay ANZ built a strong connection between the purpose, goals and values of the organisation and the personal values of its staff.

Connecting employees to a bigger goal, to a higher purpose, makes them care.

So, should we care?

A clear differentiator of successful organisations mentioned, those that have successfully competed and grown in tight markets, is the level of connection that they were able to drive been organisation, leaders and their employees. The leadership basics show your people that you value them and care about their careers. The higher purpose ensures that your people have something to connect to and care about in their work. This combination of mutual care offers a higher order psychological contract and one that best places an organisation to survive and thrive through tough times.

In a very real sense – who cares wins.


About the author

Rich Atkinson is responsible for HR across a BT Financial Group division, and was formerly HR director of eBay Inc’s businesses in Australia and Southeast Asia. He is also non-executive director of Infullview.com, an internet start-up making interviewing convenient and productive for everyone by empowering people to be seen without meetings

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