Taking Care of Business
by Rosie Steeves

In 1974, "Takin' Care of Business" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive rocketed to the top of the charts. The first rudimentary cell phones came out the same year. The Internet was still a tool largely confined to the military, and fax machines were just being introduced. For many CEOs of the day, taking care of business meant picking up a phone or mailing a letter.

Dropping those same CEOs into the year 2006 would make them dizzy with the complexity of taking care of business a quarter-century later. Many of the current workplace challenges are termed 'adaptive challenges,' problems for which there are no easy answers and which defy resolution through traditional means. Failing to meet these problems head on can bleed the bottom line and seriously impact competitive advantage.

The concept of the learning organization has emerged as one way to meet adaptive challenges. Companies who embrace this philosophy foster six key attributes in the workplace: personal mastery, shared vision, team learning, dialogue, self-awareness and understanding patterns.

Those Fortune 500 organizations that clearly walk their talk in this regard are demonstrating productivity increases, falling absenteeism and boosted morale. Profits follow suit. These companies can adapt better and faster and keep their competitive edge in times of uncertainty in the marketplace.

Underpinning the whole notion of a learning organization is the importance of leadership development. Only leaders can fuel and tend to the important structural and transformative changes required. Leadership development can be the glue that ensures the attributes of a learning organization stick around.

A manager's first task in fostering a learning organization will often be to gauge the corporate culture. Are people working towards goals that they really want to achieve? Are inquiry and experimentation fostered? Is teamwork embraced? Is ongoing personal development part of the job? Can staff take emotional risks to think or act out of the norm?

Let's look at a real-life example. Allan is the owner of a niche-marketed high-end resort. His sales were growing yearly, guests were giving rave reviews and the travel media gushed. However, Allan was so heavily burdened with growing the business that he didn't recognize that staff were critically dissatisfied with his management style.

As a consummate salesman he could sell anything to anybody, but ultimately he fell short when it came to relationships with staff. He talked at his employees instead of with them. When they irked him, he froze them out instead of engaging them in dialogue. When they approached him with constructive ideas, he dismissed them as inexperienced whiners.

With competition nipping at his heels he was at risk of losing the competitive advantage he had worked so hard to develop, and high-quality staff were now actively looking to jump ship.

The solution was to teach some basic tools for building shared vision, along with basic coaching and facilitation skills for the middle managers. It was also critical to get buy-in from Allan in order to get support from the staff.

As a result of the new shared vision, a slow shift toward a learning organization began to manifest. People began talking to each other in a different way, inquiring and experimenting and taking emotional risks to speak their mind. Operations staff began to work with the front line staff to solve problems and enhance guest satisfaction. When this last piece fell into place, Allan finally realized that his ROI for the leadership program met both criteria for a well-positioned leadership development strategy: it was good for his bottom line and for the well-being of his staff.

Taking care of business in this way takes work and time, but the investment is worth its weight in gold. In 1961 John F. Kennedy was touring the NASA Space Center and happened upon a janitor. When asked by Kennedy what his job was, the janitor replied that he was sending a man to the moon. What would your janitor say?

Tips for organizations:

  • Analyze assumptions: look at the mental models - the simple generalizations - that people are using to accomplish tasks and relate to each other.

  • Foster team learning: be on the lookout for defensive routines - self-protecting behaviours that prevent us from risking innovation or speaking our mind when it matters most.

  • Build shared vision: take the time to explain the broader purpose behind your actions. Don't hold cards too close to your chest.

  • Build leadership capacity: better communication, enhanced self-awareness (through peer feedback and other key assessment tools), shared leadership/collaboration and workplace mentoring can all be great stepping stones toward a culture of learning.

Rosie is the Co-Principal and Founder of The Centre for Exceptional Leadership. The Centre for Exceptional Leadership is a leadership development company committed to creating exceptional leaders. We raise the bar on leadership for individuals, for corporations, for businesses. We help organizations bring a degree of excellence to their leadership that is only seen in great organizations. Through this, we create bottom-line results. For additional information visit www.exceptionalleadership.com/ .

This article was originally published in Business in Vancouver magazine.

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