The first and most important truth any leader must understand is that the human beings who work inside every kind of organization possess unlimited potential. They have the ability to solve any problem and the adaptability to respond to unforeseen circumstances. It may be the most overworked truism in the business world, but employees are indeed the most valuable resource and asset that any company has.
The problem: most organizations today are unable to tap into that limitless human potential because of a series of self-imposed boundaries. Unlocking this potential means challenging the many assumptions that we have about work today: the incontestability of hierarchy, the importance of putting in time in the office, semi-annual employee reviews, valuing the voice of the customer but not of the employee, and the restriction of vital information to preserve rank.
Organizations and their leaders must strive to break three common boundaries in order to unleash all of the talent and contribution lying in wait. The first is role-based: communication and collaboration is restricted by seniority level. How could a lowly entry-level employee possibly engage with a senior manager or worse… an executive! The second type of boundary is around departments and function. Marketing folks stick with their peers in marketing, sales with sales, product development with product development and information and potential opportunities for innovation remain stuck within silos. The third most common type of boundary is geographic—employees in one office or location simply don’t “see” their peers in another.
Escaping these persistent and pernicious boundaries to communication, contribution and collaboration requires three key shifts:
From management to leadership
Lifting boundaries isn’t a matter of executive direction. It’s about re-thinking management and shifting perspective from telling people what to do to getting them excited to want to do it. We don’t need more managers, we need more leaders. Today, any employee can become that leader. Yet the norm in most organizations is to bring in more and more managers to oversee people and then more managers to look after those managers. The goal of all of this, of course, is to get a tighter grip on the organization, to enforce control. The original goal of management was simply to make sure that employees showed up to work on time to do their tasks, to not ask questions, to not cause problems, and then to leave and do that over and over again. Management wasn’t focused on innovation, the voice of the employee, engagement, or creativity. That was the case 100 years ago—and it’s still the case in too many organizations today. This is why it’s so crucial to create leadership capacity in every aspect of the business.
The leader challenges common assumptions around management and mentors employees to help them become successful. The leader has followers not because he commands them, but because he has earned them.
From “need-to-know” to collaborative technologies
The range of collaborative technologies emerging today allows employees to connect with each other and information, any time, anywhere, and on any device. While many leaders look at the onslaught of devices and apps and new technologies as a problem to be solved, the most effective leaders today aggressively support any tools that enable employees to connect, contribute, choose, and create. It needs to be easy for an employee in California to find a co-worker in Beijing. It needs to be easy for an entry-level employee to start a dialogue with an executive, even though they may have never met face to face.
Collaborative technologies are also crucial in developing leaders. In the new world of work, leaders create themselves. They share their ideas, content, and feedback in a public way, which attracts followers within the organization. Anyone can become a thought leader or subject matter expert.
From controlling management to boundary-breaking work
At every turn, leaders must ask themselves, “How does this support our vision of breaking down boundaries?” How can employee onboarding be changed? What about talent management? Perhaps when employees are brought on board they are taken through a collaboration scavenger hunt where they must find and connect with colleagues around the world; something telecommunications company TELUS does for new recruits. What if instead of semi-annual reviews, you go with a system of real-time feedback on a collaborative platform? Why not create a company leaderboard around health and wellness so that different geographic regions can see how they compare to one another. What if employees “narrated” their work in a public way so that everyone and anyone can see what they are working on? Every built-in management process is an opportunity for unleashing more human potential. The job of leaders and managers is to fundamentally rethink and re-design that core.
Unlocking human potential is the new competitive advantage. But it’s not as simple as expressing good intentions at the top. And it’s not enough to proclaim, “our people are our most important assets.” Every leader must do the hard work of breaking down boundaries and rethinking the most deeply held assumptions about work. It’s the difference between winning and losing in the future.
What are you or your organization doing to break down the boundaries that constrain human potential? Share your stories and ideas in the Unlimited Human Potential Challenge.
Jacob Morgan is the co-founder of Chess Media and author of The Collaborative Organization.