What do Australians want? A better way of life through good leadership

by HCA25 Oct 2012

Billed as the largest single donation by a living Australian to an Australian university, engineering services magnate John Grill’s generous $20 million to the University of Sydney is earmarked to set up a centre to focus on a global executive training in leadership program.

This is on the back of Bill Shorten’s announcement this month of the Government’s new Workplace Leadership Centre to address a workplace relations environment that has for too long focused on conflict between unions and employers.

The Centre hopes to address collaboration, among other things, that impede growth and create inefficiencies in our workplace.

Both Grill’s generous donation and the Government’s new Centre are noble gestures, but are we going about this the wrong way?

A common human tendency when facing problem or challenges is to go straight to 'solution mode', which paradoxically often  limits quantity and quality of options. Defining first the objective or intended direction clarifies the thinking and creates better decisions.   

The first and most important step that we need to take is to establish the national agenda. We need to work out just what this country is trying to achieve, and why.

Then the next logical step is to ask ourselves what the workplace is going to achieve in order to support that national agenda.

This creates alignment and a much more collaborative opportunity to look at the points of conflict between employers and unions, businesses and government and find effective and productive ways to address them.

The Centre is a good initiative and the purpose is clear to get a better productivity in the workplace,  but if the leaders are in conflict or attempting to address productivity from polaric standpoints uou simply won’t resolve the key issue of productivity.

If you don’t have clarity of mutual objectives you have conflict, and if the leaders of this country are in conflict, we won’t get productivity. It’s that simple.

Rather than turning to a leadership Centre that is a forum for conflict resolution, our leaders have to tackle the tough questions; they have to have clarity about what are they trying to achieve and how, and how will they align all this to the broader objective.

Bill Shorten has acknowledged the importance of employee engagement throughout this industrial relations debate, and research shows that employee engagement has long been linked to an organisation’s  success. 

In short, everyone needs a reason to get out of bed in the morning. 

This is called the 'hook factor'.

A recent analysis by global HR consultants Hewitt Associates shows that employee engagement and morale in the workplace are in a significant trough post the GFC. Their research indicates 46 per cent of the global organisations polled experienced a decline in employee engagement levels in the quarter ending June 2010, whilst only 30 per cent saw an improvement. 

As an employee’s willingness to work is  linked to commercial success, this is a problem.

The employees may be giving enough to the organisation to stay in a job, but no more. They exist ‘under the radar’. This ‘presenteeism’ is perhaps the most pernicious as it is invisible and, worse, those feeling it don’t leave!

Leaders in stretched businesses often believe that salvation from challenging times is best achieved by working their people harder. It’s a Victorian work ethic clearly outdated for today’s much more complex environment.

The other myth is that only salary drives performance and productivity. 

It’s a courageous business or government, therefore, that asks not just what are they trying to achieve but ‘why’?

It’s also a wise organisation that creates the right climate for a motivated employee. This rich combination provides meaning for individuals beyond making money which, in turn, ‘unlocks’ discretionary effort. 

So how can businesses or government  create this ‘hook factor’ and keep their staff motivated, inspired and engaged at work’?

First this is not a marketing opportunity. An organisation’s ability to inspire and keep their staff motivated and interested is powerful, and goes a long way in enhancing their reputation. 

This focus on getting employees hooked on their work life is growing, not diminishing in importance.  Generation Y and their successors, for example, will not put up with a toxic workplace. They expect more. They want to work in organisations that have a clear sense of why they exist and will choose them because they are aligned with a culture that cares for them and provides great careers, or because of that firm’s commitment to a sustainable future.

It is in these conditions that people give not just the most, they also give their best. This is good not just for the employee but for all leaders and employers in business or in government  as it gives them an opportunity to leave a greater legacy. 

The Workplace Leadership Centre is a step in the right direction, but first we must resist the urge to 'solve' and instead clarify and establish common inspiring national goals that benefit all Australians  for the future.

No more complicated than asking what do we want to achieve and how we are going to do this?

It’s only when we have clarity about what we’re trying to achieve as a nation that we are able to lift our game.


Pia Lee is  CEO LIW global leadership consultancy based in Sydney.