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Leadership That Drives Results

New year—New model

By Janie Warner, SHRM-SCP
National HR Practice Leader

I was recently in an airport when I overheard a traveler talking to another passenger who had been consulting with a large company experiencing growing pains. That is, the company had great potential, but was having difficulty delivering on it. In the consultation interview he asked the CEO what had already been done to ease the pain. The CEO quickly responded, “We have changed our mid-level executives 3 times in the past 7 years.” The consultant replied, “Why do you think it hasn’t made a difference?” To which the CEO replied, “We keep picking the wrong people.”

As the consultant later noted, top executives are often surprised to discover that a change in managers doesn’t always lead to an improvement in overall performance.

The consultant likened companies to car owners who want the best performance possible but are often unwilling to invest in a high-performance vehicle. Companies try to change drivers (i.e., management) but never work on the engine (systems/business models/ practices/employee development/etc.) Fine-tuning a race car requires constant upkeep. To get top performance, every aspect of the vehicle must be checked frequently and adjustments made. If the vehicle is still in great shape, a tune-up is all it needs to stay that way.

And what if the car owner doesn’t invest in the necessary maintenance to keep their high-performance car in tip-top shape? At some point, an excellent mode of transportation becomes an old clunker. No matter who the driver is.

What is a leader to do?

1. Examine often—change parts as needed

Like a vehicle, a great company can grow tired, stale or worn out. When that happens, changes must be made. Constant scrutiny and attention is needed to figure out whether a company has a “people” problem or an “engine” (i.e., systems) problem. Is your technology outdated? Are your recruitment efforts falling short? If so, why? Are you really looking for the right people for the jobs, or the kind of people you have always hired in the past? Companies are made up of hundreds of moving parts that function interdependently. When one fails or is not at top performance, the entire enterprise will suffer. Continuous improvement is always a sound business practice. Practice it to get the best out of your business.

2. Drivers Ed isn’t just for high schoolers

How do your employees know where the company is going? I’ve heard executives tell employees “we are headed in a new direction” when heralding a change in leadership or rolling out a new process or system. Often, employees have no idea what the old direction was and continue driving down the same old path. Companies must teach their employees not just HOW to drive but also WHERE they are going. An ongoing discussion about MISSION and VISION leads to better engagement and makes employees feel truly part of the team effort. “Employee engagement” isn’t just a 21st-century buzz phrase. It’s one of the most effective ways to get the greatest mileage from your investment of people.

3. Life in the fast lane is fast

Many leaders want their companies to be the best—but are not willing to invest in what it will take to get there. Too often, they believe the way they have always done business is still sufficient. But in today’s fast-paced world of industry, if you aren’t moving forward (and quickly) you may as well be driving in reverse. Change and innovation have to be important to a business that wants to thrive. What was excellent 10 years ago may be mediocre today. Staying on top of trends (but not following fads), as well as devoting time, effort and resources to appropriate changes and updates will make the difference between being broken down on the side of the freeway and traveling in the fast lane. And at some point, you may have to buy a new car. When you do, be sure to invest in a vehicle that will allow you to navigate the fast lane with ease.

4. Don’t forget the fuel!

Lastly, we can’t forget the fuel that drives those high speed machines. While often called a company’s “greatest asset,” people truly are the fuel that propels the engine. A car cannot go anywhere without the proper fuel. So invest in your people. Invest in innovation. Invest in ideas and then take care of those investments. With the right maintenance and improvements, your amazing driving machine will really take you places!

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