What's Most Important in a Flat, Diverse World?

by Patricia Wheeler, Ph.D.
November, 2008

Being the only American in the room is a very cool experience.  I had the pleasure of spending a few days coaching senior leaders in a Fortune 100 organization.  A cohort of their multinational workforce was gathered together to hone their strategic focus and accelerate profitability.  Part of their experience involved receiving feedback about their leadership behavior through a 360 assessment. 

The several dozen executives gathered together were from all parts of the world (with the exception of the U.S.).  And they were the picture of diversity….imagine an Italian vice president working in the Far East, married to a Japanese woman who works for an Eastern European consulate.  There was an Australian general manager working in South America.  And I worked with a Lebanese president of a Dubai-based division, as well as a German executive leading in Singapore. 

As these senior leaders examined ways of increasing profits, they came to an interesting conclusion while traversing the landscape of their global strategy, their personal 360s and learning from leaders within their industry.  It may sound overly simplistic, but here it is: It’s all about the people.  It’s the critical success factor, regardless of whether their challenges involve driving innovation, aligning operations or increasing sales. And this may be especially true in an ambiguous and changing environment, where security and predictability are low, and the need for flexibility of strategy and speed of execution is especially critical.

I’ve heard push-back about this idea.  Some leaders say things like, “But, Patricia, we’re in the widget business.  My business is not about people….it’s about making widgets faster, cheaper, better!” 

Well, let’s look closely at the widget business.  Who makes the widgets?  Who packages and delivers them to market?  Who sells them?  Who hires the sales force?  Who trains them?  Who crafts the marketing message?  Who creates corporate strategy?  Who decides on innovations?  Who answers the company phone?  At the end of the day, what business success does not rest on the ideas and efforts of its people?

When faced with the reality that every business is the People Business, I hear leaders express thoughts like these, which were expressed by leaders in this session:

“I’ve focused so much on the facts, I haven’t developed my people as much as I need to.”

“I’m so sure of my own viewpoint, I forget to ask others for their opinion.”

“I’m so focused on coming up with answers that are 100% correct that I don’t pay enough attention to innovation.”

If attention to the people in your business is crucial to your success, consider the following questions that we ask our clients:

How much time are you spending developing your people and their capabilities?  Do you treat people as important as processes?  How often do you have face to face conversations with them about their successes, goals and aspirations?  The best workers, especially within the emerging generations, demand development.  Ignore this step and you’ll likely lose them.   

To what degree to you actively seek the perspective of others, particularly those at levels below yours?  If your answer is “not much,” you are not tapping into grass-roots knowledge that may be crucial to your competitive advantage as well as a great opportunity to motivate your people. 

How much do people in your organization feel that you value them?  How are you measuring this?  Remember this: just thinking about it doesn’t count.  They need you to demonstrate your interest, in words and action.  And if you’re not regularly and rigorously assessing employee engagement, you are vulnerable to your talent walking out the door.  

How are you preparing your workforce to take on various roles across your enterprise?  Leading companies “cross-train” their leaders to take on assignments out of their comfort zone, and rotate leaders regularly.  The days of spending your days in one function or department appear to be limited, and this is a good thing, as these rotations serve to break down silos and increase long-term performance. 

And know this…even in a challenging financial climate, when many companies are cutting their budgets, there are still organizations that are allocating time, money and attention to developing their current and future leaders.  It’s inspiring to me, because we need good leaders even more in an economic downturn.  And if you’re not continuing to develop leaders during a downturn, your most promising leaders may jump ship and go to those companies that continue affirming and investing in their value. 


Patricia Wheeler is the Managing Partner of The Levin Group LLC, a consulting and advisory firm with over 20 years of experience in improving senior team effectiveness, organizational performance, and leadership solutions for CEOs, top executives, and Senior Teams. She spends most of her time working with senior leaders. You can contact Patricia by telephone at 404.377-9408 or by e-mail here.

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