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What’s the most important factor to monitor - people, strategy or culture? While you’ll need to prioritise each of these factors differently, you must be addressing all three factors well to lead your department or company. These factors are closely interlinked so ignoring one factor would naturally have a negative impact on the others. You've got to work very hard to build the right culture, values and direction.
Letting everyone set their own priorities is a prescription for disaster. Business is a team game. An excellent recent example is AirAsia, which I’m on the board for, which became rather siloed over time. This in turn made the company bureaucratic and factionalised. After the leadership realised and recognised this, it enabled us to become more efficient as a company. We changed the culture to be more integrated and we called it One Air Asia. An organisation needs to reach consensus on priorities and try new things to grow but there should also be processes to follow such initiatives. The company needs to be willing to pull the plug if initiatives are not working. Generally speaking, most companies have too many initiatives going on at once. It is better to have fewer initiatives with greater emphasis.
Given the multiple initiatives in an organisation, as a leader, you need to make difficult decisions on where to focus. Prioritisation is crucial at this point. It's always more important to focus only on the relatively important big issues rather than a whole raft of problems that will burn people's time without making much of a difference to the organisation. One of the biggest lessons that I learned in GE was to give priority to the big “why” so that resource allocation could go to significant opportunities moving forward.
I don’t subscribe to the analogy of keeping fires burning. If the issue is critical and strategic, then the teams should be working on it. If not, then kill it and don’t let the fire continue to burn. Don’t let non-strategic projects frustrate teams and reduce their energy, causing good people to leave the organisation.
Always prioritise customers. The voice of the customer should always be the loudest and be given the most weight. With the many digital initiatives today, we can now leverage on data-driven decision making. For example, we can get much better data on our markets and customers to better understand their decision making processes. Further, the data we get from our equipment like aircraft engines and gas turbines help both GE and our customers to improve their performance and safety. The goal is to create a win-win for our customers.
It’s also critical to understand what the real business question is. Ask stakeholders about what they really want to know - Why is this person asking this question? What's the context? What are the impacted segments? Based on the answers to these questions, you can then create an analysis plan with hypotheses that guide you. Next, you decide on the methodology you’re going to use whether it’s correlation analysis, predictive analysis or any relevant methodology. Based on the methodology, you collect the data that you need. After collecting your data, you need to validate, order, triangulate your data and get into the analysis to answer your guiding questions. You then end off by making recommendations.
In addition to data driven decision making, I find the Disney brainstorming framework to be very useful. The Disney brainstorming framework is about getting all of the brains in the company to work on big issues together. No matter where you are in the company, you can take part in this brainstorming framework, including entry-level employees who are usually not heard. This type of brainstorming offers them an opportunity to be heard, and it gets employees energised and excited about the role they can play in some of these transitions.
In the Disney framework, you can have 25 or more people in a room. You start by posing the various strategic questions that you want answered. Everyone then writes their answers on post-it notes and sticks them on the wall. The first stage is known as the Dreamer stage, and you don’t want to get in the way of creative solutions during this stage. Create a space where all ideas are welcome, and focus on the process of creativity. In the next stage, known as the Realist stage, you want to get into the practicality of the idea. It’s not about what’s wrong with this idea but about what can be done about the idea. At this stage, the focus is on the “how”. Finally, you go into the Spoiler stage where you shoot holes at the ideas suggested. During this final stage, you want to be critical and talk about why an idea can’t work. This whole process gets employees engaged in the process of decision making which is vital.
There are some habits that will carry you far as a leader. Personally, these habits have helped me to lead better and achieve the objectives I was tasked with.
You need to overcommunicate with your team and consistently repeat the strategies. You need to consistently reinforce the company’s culture, values, KPIs and measure your team. When employees don’t embrace these strategies and culture, they become like what I characterise as cancer in the organisation. As a leader, you have to make the difficult decision of exiting these people from the organisation. If not, other employees will be unhappy and may decide to leave.
Overcommunication is not a one-way street. It has to go both ways which means you need to be listening to what others have to say too.
Listen more than you speak. Don't talk too much. Before you start flipping the organisation chart and repeating the strategy that the CEO has, it’s good to have a sensing session with employees and listen to what they have to say before making decisions and presenting solutions. It’s also important to not only listen to employees but also the customers, partners and regulators. Listen to these considerations before you create your next strategy.
Today, young and new people who join the organisation could be demotivated if they don’t have a voice in some of the changes that are going on in the organisation. As a leader, you can’t afford to hold on to the power of making decisions alone. Others can add a lot of value in the decision-making processes, and it helps them feel more connected to the organisation. You don’t want to be missing out on such valuable information by not listening to what others have to say.
While business priorities are crucial, values are just as important. At GE, we give a lot of weight to the values of our professional staff. We give a 50% weight to people’s performance and a 50% weight to their values. Not many companies give values such importance, but I believe it’s vital and sets the right culture.
Values are subjective, and there's no doubt about that. However, if you’re consciously measuring the values of an organisation and of how you want your staff to work with each other, customers, and regulators around the world, then you have to make sure that the values are apparent.
I’m a huge fan of Jack Welch and I agree with the values he prioritised which can be remembered as the 4 Es. We measured all our employees on these values. The first value we measured them on was Edge, which means their ability to make tough decisions around the organisation, market and people. We then measured them on Energy, which is especially important in a global organisation where you may sometimes be up at strange times of the night for conference calls. It’s vital that they are still energetic in the midst of that.
The third value we looked for was Execution, and we measured them on whether they were delivering what they committed to. The final value and, arguably the most important value we measured was their ability to Energise their teams and their employees and ensure they were adaptable and responded well to changes.
The values themselves evolved overtime to respond to changes in the environment and work force changes. It is important to keep up to date and know what kind of values you want your staff and company to Embrace (a final “E” that I’d like to add to the mix).
There will be some real stars who have the values and are also performing well. However, you will have some great performers without the right values, and some staff with great values but whose performance is low. You want to be emphasising on both! Now if you have been training both these groups of people and they aren’t improving, what should you do? You can consider those with good values for other roles in the company. They are a good fit for the company culture but are perhaps not suited for their current role. On the flip side, if your good performers can’t seem to exhibit the right values, you might need to consider letting go of them. By keeping such people, you could be detrimentally affecting your company culture.
As you prioritise values, you also need to protect the culture. As a leader, you want to minimise internal politics. In my experience at GE, our best leaders stayed a long way from politics. Culture, values and KPIs should always take priority over politics. If some people can’t do that, leaders must take them out. Once at an annual leaders' meeting, Jack Welch fired 2 out of 6 global SVPs because they could not change their leadership style despite getting coaching for it. As you can imagine, that sent a strong message to everyone in the company. One of them was my boss, for whom I had little respect. I was thinking of leaving the company because my boss was a jerk and led very autocratically. So of course, many of us sighed with relief when we found out that he was one of the two who were fired. The more critical factor is that it changed the culture in the company after those leaders, who couldn’t prioritise the values and lead through those values, left the company.
These are hard decisions, but they must be made. I once had a terrific employee who was running one of our bigger businesses in Singapore. He had a truly terrific track record of selling engines for GE, but he wanted to take all the credit. You can imagine when you're selling 25 engines for about a billion dollars, it takes many people throughout the process to be able to make that happen, and if somebody thinks that it's just him doing all the work, he demotivates the rest of the team who are part of that process. We tried for a year to coach him and, although he would get better, he would fall back to bad habits. Eventually, I had to take this employee out of the company with the help of HR. Once we had taken him out of the company, there was a sigh of relief throughout the organisation. He’s an example of what I mentioned earlier - cancers in the organisation. If you don't take them out, other people who are a good fit to the organisation will be demotivated and potentially leave. You can’t take that risk.
When this particular employee left, there was of course a temporary revenue loss to the company because this employee was great with customers. It was difficult to get back to where we were with some of the customers who really liked this employee. But we had people with the right values step up and take on the role. It hurt us a little for an interim period, but it was an important decision to protect our culture.
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Chairman, Singapore | Former CEO, ASEAN
Orbis International | General Electric