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Leading in a Changing Context in the 21st Century (1 of 2)

Steve Garnett

Chief Technical Officer (CTO)

discusses leading in a changing context in the 21st Century.

23 May 2018

Foundation Stones

All technology organisations face a rapidly changing and evolving context. Where are we on micro-services? Cloud? Big Data? Digital landscape? Machine learning? Or Blockchain? How's your DevOps capability progressing?

The good news is that the pace of technological change and adoption will continue to increase, and the bad news is that the pace of technological change and adoption will continue to increase.

As a leader in a technology company today, responsible for ensuring the organisation keeps pace and maximises the value from technological advancements, there are numerous challenges that we face:

  • How do you ensure your company adopts the right technology to solve the right problems at the right time?
  • How do you ensure technologies are robust and secure enough within a highly regulated industry, without impeding innovation?
  • How do you minimise your risk exposure?
  • How do you lead people through the change, and deliver on that promise of innovation?
  • How do you attract, develop and retain innovative and engaged employees?
  • How do you, as an individual, keep up with the pace of change?

In practical terms, very few of us have the ability to absorb all these changes, in detail, find the answers to the company's problems, drive it forward and lead and implement those changes alone. We need to create organisations that collaborate and share energy collectively in service of a clear vision or goal.

If this final statement is true, of all the problems listed above, the primary issue is 'How do you attract, develop and retain innovative and engaged employees?'.

Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose (MAP)

Motivating ourselves and others is essential to our continued growth and success. An individual's motivation is categorised by whether they are motivated by their own internal drivers or their external environment and interactions.

In his book 'Drive', Daniel Pink argues that the essential needs of engaged 21st-Century workers are Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose (MAP). Based on studies carried out at MIT and other universities, higher pay and bonuses resulted in better performance only if the task consisted of basic mechanical skills. It worked for problems with a defined set of steps and a single answer. If the task involved cognitive skills, decision-making, creativity, or higher-order thinking, higher pay resulted in lower performance.

We need to pay our people enough to 'take the issue of money off the table'. If you don't pay people enough, they won't be motivated.

Companies facing the issues above need employees that are engaged in the vision of the company, are continuous learners and have the ability to work in a flat structure with high autonomy in order to move at pace.

In order to attract, develop and retain valuable employees, our organisations need to be structured to enable employees to:

  • Work autonomously (meet our need to be self-directed, increasing engagement)
  • Enable life-long learning (meet the need for self-mastery - the urge to obtain better skills)
  • Have clear purpose (provide for work that has meaning and is important. Businesses that focus only on profits without valuing purpose will end up with poor customer service and unhappy employees.)

As a CTO, I believe my role is to create a working environment that fosters mastery, autonomy and purpose. I was having dinner with a customer one evening and he talked about his Easter weekend and how he worked from dawn till dusk on his holiday on a summer home in Cornwall. ('Nice to have a summer home', I thought!). But the interesting thing was that he loved it. He and his wife cancelled pre-booked dinners at nice restaurants in order to do this work, and he stated that the time seemed to fly.

Can you imagine him having the same experience if his company had asked him to work through his leave period, from dawn till dusk, and cancel his dinner bookings?

This experience of 'engaging with the work' is called 'flow'. It's that time at work when you are so involved in what you are doing that time flies and you are fully engaged, involved and enjoying the act of producing the service or product, that is, the intrinsic enjoyment of the task at hand. We all have had this feeling of 'flow' at one time or another. Imagine if we could create working environments that created this scenario every day.

'Carrots & Sticks are so last Century... For 21st-Century work, we need to upgrade to mastery autonomy, and purpose.' - Daniel Pink.

Servant Leadership

A different style of leadership is required in order to excel within this rapidly changing context, leadership that shares responsibility, fosters growth and innovation, and is comfortable with constant change and ambiguity.

Servant leadership, while a timeless concept, was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in 'The Servant as Leader', an essay that he first published in 1970:

'The servant-leader is servant first... It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions... The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them, there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.' - Robert K. Greenleaf.

I think the recognition of a spectrum between the leader-first and servant-first styles is important as, although we may aspire toward the servant-first style, most of us are not doing this purely out of a desire to serve others. It is also important to recognise the word 'leadership' and ensure that people understand both parts of the phrase.

The concept of servant leadership is essential for developing low-hierarchical, meritocratic organisations with a collaborative culture. If the organisation's leadership is 'leader-first' (predominantly motivated by power and the acquisition of material possessions), this is more likely to form a company that is more hierarchical, paternal and siloed and less likely to be innovative or maintain a high pace of change.

'The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people's highest-priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?' - Robert K. Greenleaf.

In structuring organisations that foster mastery, autonomy and purpose, there are some relatively simple and proven patterns, and we're adopting some of these at Aquila Heywood.

In my next blog, I'll outline some relatively simple changes we've made to try and address these challenges.

Read the next blog in this series.

Steve Garnett is Chief Technical Officer at Aquila Heywood, the largest supplier of life and pensions administration software solutions in the UK.

Further Reading