Recently in our organization we’ve been looking into ways to operate more effectively in all areas, and one of the ideas is to get each individual contributor empowered and enabled to make good decisions and act on them without needing to wait for approval any more than absolutely necessary. To simplify this is what we’re working on:
- Train individuals on what matters and how to make decisions toward those ends
- Give individuals authority to decide and act according to their training
- Teach individuals to understand their responsibilities
- Train individuals to be accountable to expected outcomes
- Create a culture of peer accountability
We have all been reading and researching and absorbing information in pursuit of how to succeed in these goals, and along the way been able to take in some REALLY great tips from thought leaders in many industries. I feel guilty highlighting only three books in this post, because there are volumes and volumes of great points made in many great publications that I’ve read over the last couple of years. With that said, there are three books that I think really do a great job of describing the type of culture we’re looking for and explaining how to cultivate it. I will list them here, in what I believe is the Chronological sequence that helps them all make the most sense. Here’s a hint: I read them in the wrong order at first, then went back and read them again in the right order and got much more out of them all.
Turn the Ship Around
Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet recently made the rounds in our office. This is a book that I think our president had read some time ago but either had mentioned not, or had mentioned only in passing, or had mentioned directly but without my noticing. All are possible as sometimes I seem to live in my own world… Regardless, I didn’t notice it until it was mentioned in one of the other books on this list. In this book we learn about the ways in which a “normal” organization adhering to the expected ways of doing things can breed a group of employees who really don’t give a rip about the work they’re doing.
In this case even a group of people trained to defend freedom in far-flung parts of the world against some of the world’s most hostile foes lost sight of the importance of their purpose in a mess of confusing and ineffective policies. One guy stepped in with the courage to try a different approach and got startlingly successful results by trusting in the character and potential of the people on his team, patience and support to guide them through change, and the constitution to defend the change he believed would make a difference.
The reward was in the results. This is book helps leaders understand that people are capable of much more than they are often given credit for, and the promise of greatness if we will harness this potential.
Start With Why
Start With Why by Simon Sinek helps us understand the differences between people who get the core of their purpose and those who simply show up — and the associated results. In this book, Sinek drives through example after example demonstrating what is possible when individuals have a clear vision of their desired outcomes. Those who understand and believe in the common goal or cause will always outperform and surpass the success of those who simply follow the guidelines and procedures set out for them.
The first time I read this I hadn’t yet read Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around, and as a result I found it tedious and boring. I read this book after seeing a video of Sinek speaking at a conference of Managed IT service professionals and having been impressed by his presentation. I actually got bored pretty early on and moved on to other reading about halfway through. It wasn’t until after I had read Turn the Ship Around that I had any desire to go back to this book, and when I did it finally made sense.
Leaders Eat Last
In Leaders Eat Last, Sinek dives into the physiological reasons for doing the things we do. Building on this the book takes us through how we can use an understanding of what motivates us to drive greater outcomes. Having a great support structure within our organizations and among our peers, and trusting that support structure gives individuals the confidence to take the (calculated) risks necessary to take things to the next level — to succeed in new ways that never would have been possible before.
As with the others, I read this at the wrong time — at time when I really couldn’t appreciate the content in the way it was intended. It was after reading Turn the Ship Around and then Start With Why, and only then did this book really click with me in a way that made any difference in my daily work.
The Real Learning Experience
The last and possibly the most interesting thing that I learned from these three books is that just reading any one of them — or even the three of them together — in itself didn’t really amount any real learning or change. Leaders Eat Last was utterly useless until I had thought about the “why” of our organization. And Start With Why wasn’t beneficial to me until I was intrigued by the possibilities asserted in Turn the Ship Around.
My recommendation is to read them all, in this order, and to not stop there. Once you’ve got an idea on what you want from your culture and what it can do for your organization, it needs to be applied to your specific strategic goals and tactical action plans. If you’ve built your organization for success, this will help build a culture to get you there. Without a great plan, your culture is just a bunch of people working beautifully together at all the wrong things. This little study gave me a greater appreciation for the visionaries who came before me, the current leaders of my organization, and my peers who are working to create the environments described in these books.