In this article, Keith Coats, our resident leadership expert, visits one of his favourite themes: the company as a village. He explains the four key requirements for developing successful and resilient organisations: belonging, mastery, independence and generosity.

Expectations around the workplace have shifted. No longer is “work” the place where one goes to simply … well, “work”. More is expected of this place where the majority of us spend so much of our adult life.

In fact the workplace has become the new “village” for the majority of its citizens. This shift was first anticipated and articulated by management Guru Peter Drucker over three decades ago. Drucker’s message was that the workplace of the future would be seen as a “community”, “a radical message when viewed against the prevailing business model at the time. As with most prophetic voices, Drucker’s message for the most part, fell on deaf ears. However it has emerged that Drucker was spot-on in his call and yet amazingly, there are still those in the boardrooms who don’t get it.

Understanding the workplace as the new “village” is a helpful metaphor to explore not only leadership but also organisational development as a whole. However before we get to this we need to understand something of why this shift to the village has occurred.

There was a time where work was just that, “work”. There was “work” and then there was “life”. There was a generation we refer to as the “Silent Generation” – those born in the 1930’s and 1940’s, who accepted the fact that life was made-up of ‘work’ and then there was the ‘rest of life’ – that part that remained outside of work. A conversation for example on how best to have ‘fun at work’ would not have featured on any agenda for the Silent generation. Fun at work? “If we expected to have fun at workâ€? they would reason, “why then would we call it ‘work’?â€? And of course, they have a point!

But that was then. Today expectations around fun at work have changed. Today you have a generation in the workplace (Gen X – those born in the 1970’s and 1980’s) who does not dichotomise between work and fun. In their worldview of the workplace, fun and work are not strangers. For this generation having fun at work is simply not an option, it is a prerequisite. And if they don’t find it here, well they simply move on and keep looking for a place where fun and work converge. This new workforce is looking for different things from the place where they work and they are asking different questions.

I remember a HR director of an international accounting firm recounting a story which illustrates this exact point. She told me of a top student at the local university whom they had specifically head-hunted for a position in their company. Here was a great offer with great career prospects for this need-to-be employed young person. The Director told me how the young graduate had come for an interview – “a formality reallyâ€? – was how she put it, and having been shown around the impressive offices, the potential recruit sat in the Director’s office and blurted out, “Thanks for the offer but I don’t want to work hereâ€?. When the somewhat taken-back Director asked for a reason, the young graduate replied, “When I arrived here nobody really greeted me and as I walked around nobody looked like they were having fun – no one looked like they really wanted to be hereâ€?. Verdict delivered, decision made, case closed. It was that simple.

Every February Fortune magazine previews the ’10 Best Companies to work for in Europe’.  Putting aside any cynicism around the merits of such surveys, there remain some interesting pointers to distill from the stories of the companies profiled. A common thread throughout the respective stories of companies profiled was that they all had succeeded in creating a fun work environment. Their ability to extract fun from work served as superglue for retaining Talent and as a strong lure in the quest to attract Talent. The lesson for companies wishing to do the same is that pursuing an agenda beyond mere efficiency at work is no longer optional – it has now become a mandatory requirement.

So what then should a company focus on if it is to build a healthy village – one that will thrive into the future? There are four areas on which to focus:

Belonging: The focus is on people and their environment

Creating a sense of belonging is fundamental to the cohesion of any group. Without belonging there can be no sense of community. A reality of the human condition is that we all need to ‘belong’. The need to do so takes on many forms and guises and no longer can the workplace escape the need to be one of those places where this basic of all human needs is fulfilled.  Starbucks have captured this truth in one of their five operating principles which they articulate as, ‘make it your own’. In part this is expressed by Starbucks partners (employees) being encouraged to ‘be welcoming’ in their own unique way.

The behaviours present in any environment provide evidence as to the heath of that environment. This is true for each of the four areas to be explored. In the case of belonging:  when it is present, one will find a friendly, cooperative and trusting environment. If it is absent then the antithesis of these behaviours will be found. Should a work environment display these antithesis behaviours then it is a sure sign that what required work at a root level is that of belonging.

Where there is no Belonging: How do you keep staff long-term?

Mastery: The focus is on people in their function

The intentional development of necessary skills is a vital component of any business wishing to develop or maintain a competitive edge. Mastery of those functions that are core to the business therefore needs a well thought through and intentional action plan.  In the past ‘functional training’ was seen as the only responsibility that the company had towards its employees. That has changed. Today the expectation is that the company goes beyond ‘functional training’ and provides a broader ‘life training’ for its Village. If there is a need for marriage / relational enrichment training, well then the company needs to see to it. Smart companies recognise this wider need for life-skills development and have put together unconventional training offerings that extend far beyond the operational needs of the enterprise. As with Belonging, when Mastery is present in an environment one can expect to find certain corresponding behaviours. These would include creative problem solving, motivation, persistence, competence and a willingness to delegate. Again, if this is not the case, then a clue as to what root cause to work on is provided.

Where there is no Mastery: How do your staff develop?

Independence: The focus is on people and their potential.

By ‘independence’ it is not meant, ‘I can stand alone’ – an emphasis that this word has assumed in our Western context. Rather, it should be understood as ‘assuming responsibility for one’s decisions and actions’. Understandably this is a very healthy attribute for any business ‘DNA’. The ability of staff to assume responsibility for their actions strips a corporate culture of the more common trait of finding someone else to blame or the all too common skill of ‘passing the buck’. Developing Independence within a business culture necessitates looking closely at the prevailing environment and leadership style that defines the current reality. An environment where Independence is present is one where there is a strong sense of autonomy. There will be a confident, assertive and responsible sense amongst those Villagers where inner-control and self-disciple are evident. All too often leadership’s lack of belief in people, in their potential and in their inherent drive to want what is better, is betrayed by their leadership behaviour. Naturally the leadership rhetoric promulgates all the right things but critically, there is an awkward gap between the script and the action. It is a gap that fools few and is why so many new management initiatives are met with cynicism and a, “here we go again” type of response.

Where there is no Independence: How do you encourage your staff to take responsibility?

Generosity: The focus is on everyone’s obligation

The need to be generous both within and outside of a business has become a central trait for any company wishing to attract and retain Talent. Generosity can include sharing one’s time and resources with a colleague as well as adopting an external focus whereby the business and its people can contribute to a cause – something bigger than themselves. Generosity is what awakes the sense of purpose and meaning within an environment. When generosity is present one will encounter a place where there is a sense of caring and sharing. Loyalty, empathy and support all grow from such soil and any Village where such traits are present is a healthy Village. In pursuit of such characteristics leaders often adopt poorly thought through strategies and are guilty of badly executed practices. I recall encountering a South African bank which had unilaterally implemented the renowned ’70/20/10′ principle found within General Electric under Jack Welsh. After securing excellent initial results, the system imploded somewhat as it began to inhibit the sharing of ideas and information when that sharing might prejudice ones own career development. However leaders who are able to unlock the ‘spirit of generosity’ within their Village will have created the kind of place where people want to be. There will be a collective sense of ownership and responsibility found in such an environment.

Where there is no Generosity: How are information and resources freely shared?

Building a healthy village takes time and intentional effort. There are simply no short-cuts or quick-fixes. And in closing a confession: These four areas form what is known as the ‘Circe of Courage’ – a framework used to explain something of the Native American approach to community and specifically raising a child where, as we know, it takes a ‘village to raise a child’. The applications from this framework (in its original context) to the corporate ‘village’ are obvious. The new company is a village. And while it may be a jungle ‘out there’ – there is no reason why that jungle should encroach into the village. Every village needs Gatekeepers, those whose task it is to warn of impending danger and preserve that which is good.

Having worked to build a village, know who are your Gatekeepers and then pay attention to what it is they are saying.     

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