The era of the big egos is over  

Numerous factors – such as globalization, legal regulations, changes in values and generations, as well as threats such as cybercrime – are posing not only more challenges to companies and thus management, but also more complex ones and more frequently. Unsurprisingly, digitalisation has proved to be a particularly powerful catalyst for changes that can no longer be managed, let alone shaped, by conventional thought and behaviour patterns.

Making decisions about technical innovations that are beyond their own field of expertise or, for example, developing and leading international teams that have a high degree of autonomy, not only requires new skills, but above all the ability to subordinate one’s ego to a higher goal. But this goes against the grain for today’s still predominantly status and security-orientated top managers, who tend to be reluctant to challenge the status quo. However, and somewhat ironically, top managers consider the ability to let go of convention and to focus instead on the team and results to be one of theirpersonal strengths.Yet especially when under pressure, the exact opposite is true: it is widely argued, for example, that it is still too premature for change, that employees are not ready for it or that it is (not yet) feasible for a particular industry sector. Direct reports perceive micromanagement, dominance and political games as managers try to prevent loss of control and strive to defend or even improve their own position. Important decisions will not be made in the interests of customers or the future of the organisation, but rather to save one’s own job. Similarly, necessary innovations are not being implemented for the simple reason that they are not at the forefront of managers’ minds. But unfortunately, those who are so strongly controlled by their ego usually lack awareness of their own behaviour and its effect.

Fortunately, even in boardrooms, it is already apparent that the formerly alpha animals, who have always steered a company's fortunes in a high-profile way like superstars, are increasingly being replaced by more modest managers. This new breed of executives works silently in the background and see themselves as creators of scope for development and creativity, in which employees and innovations can naturally develop.

 

MEME, A COMPANY’S CULTURAL GENE

To steer a company along a completely new course – and nothing else is needed these days – it must first be understood in which values the employees, stakeholders and above all managers themselves are deeply rooted: like genes, the mostly unspoken values, thinking and behaviour patterns that constitute an organisation’s internal culture, are inherited and affect the health, fitness and efficacity of a team. The American psychology professor Clare W. Graves has coined the term MEME to describe this phenomenon. And in his book Reinventing Organizations, Frederic Laloux has bought the levels of social and organizational development to a wider audience using the Spiral Dynamics model (which Don Beck has further developed based on the work of Clare Graves).

If a company (as is still the case with most) has a strong hierarchy and internal structure and a tradition of security and “community”, it will be very sensitive to change of any kind. No matter how innovative and promising the new strategy may seem, management consultancies often forget, for example, that their concepts are more in line with their own culture of efficiency and high performance than that of the company for which they develop strategies. It is therefore no wonder that many implementations fail, or at best stall.

 

ESTABLISHING A NETWORK ORGANISATION ON THE FLY

While on one hand we have a systematic situation where, for security reasons, big egos intend to  slow down and hind change, on the other hand we have another extreme: when, for example, the CEO of a medium-sized company with a long tradition and a solid employee base and mostly private customers unexpectedly decides to implement a Network-Organisation, the company is likely to skip a few stages of development. But in doing so, the deep-rooted values, needs and behaviours of employees and executives are encroached upon. This is because rules and behaviours – which for outsiders may seem antiquated and superfluous – have a deeper meaning for those who are directly affected, which is not always apparent at first glance. For example, the coffee corner is not only about drinking, but also a place for informal communication. To ignore this deeper meaning and to abolish something ad hoc and unnecessarily would be short-sighted and meet considerable resistance.

If a company is organized as a network, there are no executives and no designated contact for the most loyal customers, but rather independent teams. The fact that these teams are autonomous and linked by common goals, will cause quite a stir both internally and in terms of customer contact. It will be particularly interesting to see what happens when middle-management executives have to make themselves redundant.

 

FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION

It makes sense for a company to derive a strategy from the corporate vision (if available) and to then combine it with the mission, the values and the needs of both customers and employees. If the network organisation then turns out to be the most appropriate type of organisation, the executives and employees are probably ready for it, and the implementation can be well planned and, above all, communicated with buy-in from all parties. Form follows function, and not vice versa.

The reality is that visionary business leaders are often easily excited about innovative concepts, and often naturally predisposed to trying new things and being the first. However, the rest of the organisation tends not to be this way inclined. The reasoning behind the innovation and, above all, the implementation itself, are traditionally of no concern to the visionary, so he neither has the time, nor has he had the practice, to think about implications for the company. As a result, the next managerial level and other employees must implement a concept that was neither meaningfully derived from the existing culture or the current corporate structure, let alone the existing skill set and needs of the employees, never mind the customers’ wants and desires. In a best-case scenario, only a considerable amount of time and energy will be wasted here, because a culture of resistance and without understanding for change, is no basis upon which to enforce transformation. In a worst-case scenario, a company will be driven up the wall.

 

A VISIONARY AS A CEO IS A GOOD STARTING POINT

 … yet should the visionary listen to the implementors, it would be even better. The visionary needs the personal maturity to keep his ego in check and the sense to keep an eye on factors within the company – his role – and to develop innovation as part of a team that consists of people from different areas within the company, with different functions, values and behavioural backgrounds. This would demonstrate an inner attitude and maturity that could really form the basis of a network organisation.

People are currently flocking to the Netherlands to listen to presentations by the outpatient care company Buurtzorg, about how to run a network organisation. (This is one of the companies that Frederic Laloux talks about in his book). But a network organization is a system that cannot simply be transferred 1:1 to any other company, let alone sector by sector. The grass does not grow faster if you pull on it.

 

WHAT MODERN LEADERS NEED

Executives need strong internal stability and the freedom to make decisions regarding strategy and customers, even if this could, for example, lead to the loss of their own status or even jobs. This is because this inner attitude of shaping the inevitable, instead of subconsciously trying to slow down or put obstacles in the way, and at the same time inspiring employees to take this journey, is one of the most important competencies that executives in digital times can have – and it goes far beyond the traditional skill set. But how do I inspire managers and employees to shape change? New concepts, structures and kick-off workshops, which social media so colourfully and enthusiastically portrays?  Yes, of course - but later.

In order not only to navigate their way around this new environment and to be able to endure this freedom, but above all to be able to design and shape it, executives must first develop a personal degree of maturity in their perception, their value system and their way of thinking and working. And in addition to the agility and speed required, it also takes patience to avoid leaving the system behind in the gallop.To reduce the dominance of an executive’s ego and make this ego the servant of a higher purpose would be quite something.