Do Your Best People Know Their Extra Value?

In yesterday’s Advisor, experts Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones presented tips to building an authentic organization from their book Why Should Anyone Work Here? What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization (Harvard Business Review Press, November 2015). Today, Goffee and Jones emphasize the importance of injecting extra value into the workplace.

Goffee is emeritus professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, and Jones is a Fellow of the Centre for Management Development at London Business School and a visiting professor at Spain’s IE Business School in Madrid.

Extra Value

Address extra value when you are experiencing two possible symptoms. The first is when the company has trouble retaining its best people. As Chris Satterthwaite, chief executive of marketing services company Chime, remarks: “Your best people leave when they know the value they add is greater than the value the organization adds to them.” In the tight labor markets of the emerging economies, this is often a vital issue.
The second sign that an injection of extra value is needed is low mobility within the organization. In other words, the people who do stay become stuck in their jobs. A case in point is a pharmaceutical company with which we worked—one of the best pharma companies in the world, actually, in terms of both market capitalization and track record of innovation.
Although its “pilot plant” operation was performing satisfactorily, in the culture of this organization, “satisfactorily” was clearly not good enough. Interviewing staff members, we learned that many had been doing the same job for more than 10 years.
That is when we suggested much higher levels of internal mobility—put simply, people were given different jobs to perform. Over the course of 18 months, performance improved dramatically. It taught us a stark lesson; it’s not always a good thing to leave people in the same role, even when their performance is satisfactory. Small changes can have big effects.

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Authenticity may be a start point where it has become unclear what the organization stands for. Ironically, this is sometimes signaled by a succession of hastily rewritten mission statements. Authenticity, however, is achieved not through fancy catchphrases but rather a connection with the past, clarity and continuity of purpose, and exemplary leadership. Organizations like BMW, Novo Nordisk, New York Life, and Heineken pass these tests with flying colors.
Turn to meaning when you are confronted with low engagement scores and silo mentalities. These symptoms may tell you something about the way jobs are designed and the way organizations are structured. Sadly, the legacy of Taylorism (scientific management) still hangs over both jobs and organizational design even in companies that have sprung up in recent years to exploit the internet for commercial advantage. But, low engagement can also result from a loss of a sense of community.
As careers become characterized by higher rates of mobility and often mixed bursts of employment and self-employment, corporate communities have fragmented. New technologies have also contributed to the problem by encouraging the growth of virtual teams and by reducing opportunities for face-to-face contact. As Henry Mintzberg points out, “Tellingly, some of the companies we admire most—Toyota, Semco (Brazil), Mondragon (a Basque federation of cooperatives), Pixar, and so on—typically have this strong sense of community.”

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Finally, you might begin with simple rules when the organization seems to be shrouded in a web of complexity, where people experience their work as overly constrained and the prevailing culture is “it’s more than my job is worth;” that is, people merely fulfill the minimum requirements of their role and are afraid to exercise discretion.
Attempting to address this issue is not a new phenomenon—think of Jack Welch’s famous crusade at GE or the resurrection of Southwest Airlines. More recently, Unilever has dramatically streamlined its brand portfolio, enabling the organization to focus on superbrands. But, lessons can also perhaps be learned from some surprising places.
Mumbai’s legendary dabbawallas, for example, who deliver home-cooked food to thousands of office workers, by bicycle and by train, are able to sustain their astounding service record (delivering 130,000 lunch boxes per day throughout one of the world’s most populous cities) through adherence to simple codes. These contain just enough information for people to know where to deliver. Delta Airlines recently redesigned its boarding passes in a way that mirrors the dabbawallas’ approach.
These businesses have become characterized by conventional ownership structures, although they clearly started with “alternative” ideals—to make information freely available, to let people “be themselves,” and to “do no evil.” So, we might as well ask ourselves: Are these companies modern exemplars of the dream—transparent, tolerating difference and personal freedom, and providing moral purpose? Or, are some of them showing signs of old problems?

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