Why Back in Motion founder Jason T Smith ignited a leadership revolution in his business
What do you do when it seems that your ‘team just stopped working’? For Back in Motion founder Jason T Smith there was only one option. Fix it.
Over a two year period Smith spearheaded a total shake-up of the business,a tale he shares in his book Outside-In Upside-Down Leadership. In this edited extract from the book Smith outlines the state of play that caused a complete mindshift and reflects on change options…
Outside-In Upside-Down Leadership
Within three hours of returning to my desk, on the first day back from long service leave, things were hitting the proverbial fan. I had four staff report to me on rifts that had developed in my absence between our two primary teams. It had become Corporate Services versus Operations.
I got the message loud and clear: my holiday was definitely over.
I always taught my team that the best form of leadership is truth. So we consistently welcomed healthy rigour and transparency in workplace conversations. Respectful candour is essential to identify the best strategies for moving forward. Fierce debate was a feature of most meetings. I liked to encourage opposing views and alternative thoughts in our pursuit of answers.
Most people learned quickly how to engage in this style of robust communication and appreciated its benefits. Our people developed the hearts of lambs with the skin of crocodiles – the right combination, in my opinion.
The problem was, the mood had now turned. The staff were not experiencing constructive confrontation. It seemed the team were at odds. They had apparently lost the respectfulness that afforded the candour. One without the other was poison. Our once positive culture was showing cracks.
While the cat’s away…
It was clear to me that the executive authorities I had delegated to cover my long service leave had unintentionally given rise to a new form of management style… an unwanted one – uber-egocentricity.
Otherwise known as command and control in formal management parlance.
No one person was to blame – other than possibly myself. Our organisational structure favoured this approach. It was top-down and linear. It stratified people into layers and, by its nature, created a pecking order – a corporate caste system.
The roots of this structure were planted in the industrial age. At such time it was considered acceptable, if not advantageous, to rule employees with an autocratic and authoritative style. It facilitated order out of chaos. It gave workers direction. It created productivity out of inefficiency.
It was a paradigm that worked in its day. But society had matured.
It was a new day.
For the first 10 years of our organisational journey, we had tried to be inclusive within the traditional hierarchy. But now, some managers were showing uncharacteristic heavy-handed influence. They started to make all the decisions unilaterally, rather than welcoming input.
They kept certain reports and information to themselves to fortify their power. They spoke fast, loud, and down their nose. They overruled the suggestions and ideas of others. They greedily accepted all the credit and generously distributed all the blame. They would speak first, dominate the middle, and always have the last word.
Staff found themselves excluded from projects at the absolute discretion of superiors. Some had their positions redefined against their will. One person even came to work one day to find their computer, files, and personal effects relocated to a smaller desk at the opposite end of the building, without any warning.
Key managers, acting in isolation, were destroying our team – through unilateral management. And arguably, because the organisational chart gave them permission to do so.
It got worse. Before long, senior staff would openly confront each other in corridors. They postured with defiance in meetings. They spoke ill of others – initially through the deft art of subtlety and, eventually, in bold outbursts.
Of course, none of it went unnoticed. To out-perform one another and prove their capability, people’s one-upmanship began hurting colleagues. It was immature. It revealed a stark lack of inner security and self-identity. It was not the leadership culture we wanted.
Our people were unaccustomed to this style of management. Some were confused. Others felt intimidated. Everyone was concerned. Tensions rose due to the thinly veiled mistrust. Envy grew. Following its natural course, it wasn’t long before most felt grievances toward another – perceived or otherwise.
Attitudes are infectious, especially the toxic ones. Support staff felt used and overlooked by their senior managers. The general managers felt unappreciated and betrayed by the support staff. The senior managers became the meat in the middle of the unpalatable workplace sandwich. Some of the middle managers empathised and sided with the younger support team. Others cast their lot with the executive team.
Change was being demanded from everyone.
We shone light into every dark corner of our team structure and organisational model. Nobody could hide. Especially me.
Ownership should never be perceived as leadership. Don’t confuse them. Just because someone holds equity or a controlling interest in the board, that does not equate to them having the attributes that inspire followership of the masses.
I needed to step up in a new way. Innovative leadership became my primary objective.
Evolution and revolutions
Not all change looks the same. As I look back over the growth of our organisation I see two distinct patterns.
Some have been slow and subtle. Steady adaptation – tweaks of a dial and gentle pulls of a lever, with gradual results. Characterised by gentleness, these changes are careful to not disrupt other attributes that are in some way co-dependent. It’s more about continuous improvement – etamorphosis, the slow burn, developmental creep.
Simply stated, this style of change is an evolution.
Then there is an entirely other form of change I have experienced. It’s radical – fast paced, sometimes ruthless and indifferent to whatever is in its path. We went left yesterday and we are going right today. The foot drops hard on the pedal as the G-force lurches you backwards. It’s about acceleration, not acclimatisation; U-turns rather than sweeping bends. You are in or you are out. Late adopters miss this form of change. People sitting on the fence get injured in sensitive and private places. It happens quickly – step change. If your seat belt is not on as the car takes the corner at full speed, you may roll out the passenger door.
Simple stated, this style of change is a revolution.
Change was inevitable and we had two ways forward: would it be by evolution or revolution?
It’s probably no surprise, but there was never really any choice. It had to be the latter. We had to cleave the old way of doing things and overnight take up the mantle of a whole new ethos.
We set our go-live date. Our leadership revolution would start tomorrow.
9 leadership tips
- Collaboration is multiplication.
- Don’t confuse ownership with leadership.
- As operational visibility and daily responsibilities decrease, leadership presence must increase.
- Beware workplace titles – as they can often be ambiguous, incomplete, and self-limiting. Encourage best contribution instead.
- Prefer platforms of influence over positions of authority.
- If people think it, they will eventually act it. So, encourage free speech early and respectfully.
- Don’t confuse equity with equality. Value fairness over sameness.
- Organisational structure is not good or bad – it’s just executed rightly or wrongly.
- Change can be led by evolution or revolution – choose carefully.
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