What pushed Steve Balmer, Microsoft’s C.E.O. to seek to motivate his people in such a way that gained him instantaneous reputation on the web… Today, type “Dance monkey boy” on Google and the following clip appears:
The intention probably was to galvanize the troops, show a new leadership style was emerging (Balmer had just been elected C.E.O.) and show Microsoft would fight back (the session is a few years old when Microsoft was harshly criticized). In short, Steve Balmer was probably advised to act this way in order to engage his people… There are better, more authentic and less dangerous (Balmer seems quite out of breath) ways to do so…
In the book I wrote with some of my partners, we summarized eight misconceptions leaders frequently have about engagement, which may lead them to such unusual and unnatural ways of behaving as poor Steve Balmer:
- People would want to redesign the strategy: Wrong! our numerous engagement workshops all, without exception, demonstrate that participants don’t want to be involved in designing the new strategy. Bankers want to stay bankers and chemists want to work in their labs… People expect the Board to have done their homework. Each time audiences are asked to volunteer in designing a strategy, the silence is deafening… So what do people want? They want to be given time, space, and authorization to explore, challenge, understand what the management asks them to engage in. They want to be able to question and summarize the new strategy before fully going for it. That does not mean they want to create it!
- People don’t have sufficient strategic knowledge; we will be wasting our time in mundane discussions: Wrong! A research (frequently attributed to the Dale Carnegie training organization) used to claim that the top 500 firms in the USA were asked from which level of the hierarchy ideas had come which had transformed their business in the last twenty years. Between 3-5% of such initiatives were said to have originated from the top management, slightly less than a third were from middle management and approximately two thirds came from “operational people”. Co-creating clarity is never a waste of time. Great ideas on strategy implementation emerge in such large audiences.
- People will be negative: Wrong! Our experience is always of the contrary… Yes, people may be cynical, sceptical or suspicious at the start of the process. They are above all, a bit ill at ease to meet in such a large number in an unusual space where they quickly realize there will be no place to hide, nor space for passengers. On the whole, the first sessions of an engagement process always end up on a high, with people grateful and appreciative of the risk taken by their leaders and the openness and trust they demonstrated.
- People will say that “this” is the Board job to do: Wrong! That attitude (“The Board should know… why do they ask us?”) is sometimes encountered. It is however a minority view and people who hold it don’t keep it for long, brought back to a more responsible attitude by the strong and positive peer pressure which develops through the process. In fact this concern is far more widespread amongst leaders still believing that they “should” know, that they should come with a solution (back to the “Telling/Selling” assumptions and functioning mode) rather than being a widely held view of their followers.
- We shouldn’t scare “them” by saying…: Wrong! Many well intentioned executives are concerned about being “too open” in their encounter with their people. They would like not to create a wind of panic, a wave of negativity or spread rumors when they and their people were just exploring a topic. Clarity is their concern. That is our concern as well and when kicking an engagement process off, leaders have to be clear. They must not hesitate to repeat several times what is negotiable vs. what is not, what is open for exploration and what is simple communication without comments being asked.
- We can’t tell them everything: Wrong! Ron Teerlink, having just been appointed to the Board of ABN-Amro, was told minutes before he would speak to his top 250 people that a rumor had been leaked about lay-offs. Ron didn’t shy away from the discussion. He simply told the audience: “There are three types of questions I assume you will ask: those questions for which I know the answer and I will respond straightaway. There will be those questions, which I expect to be a majority, for which I don’t know the answer and we should reflect together on these. Finally, there may be a very few questions for which I have an answer but which I will not be able to communicate now given that it is the CEO’s privilege to do so”. And, as per expected, most of the questions asked were thrown back at the audience, some were answered on the spot and for three (three only) he had to “pull his joker” and participants all understood and respected this. In fact, nature dislikes the void. The “no comments” will bring far more comments, speculations and rumors than if things had been exposed correctly and clearly. Rumors will always spread out of proportion and with a level of drama that could have been avoided, if leaders had had the courage to come and engage their troops.
- “They” will disagree amongst themselves: Right! And so what? The process is launched to create a debate and explorations. People will not necessarily agree immediately and that is a sign of engagement. However, we never had internal disagreement blocking and crippling the whole process. In fact there is a deliberate technique we use (learned from Richard Pascale) called Valentines where we make sure we surface disagreements between functions and regions by asking groups early on to give their perceptions of other groups and challenge tacit assumptions.
- We will get exposed: Right! And is it better to stay hidden on the 30th floor behind a barrage of secretaries and PA’s? When change happens, leaders are expected to show the way, be role models with their people. The exposure leaders get is a positive one. “Courageous Vulnerability” is a leadership skill that has massive impact.
I hope this plea for openness will reinforce your courage in engaging your own people when I know that some of you will exactly do so this coming week.
Geneva,… Andermatt and Paris will be my working places this week! Have a fruitful week all!
 D. Marlier, C. Parker and M.T.I. “Engaging Leadership” (April 2009) Palgrave-MacMillan