Wish to evaluate your ability to engage followers? Take the handrail test

by Didier Marlier on Thursday May 28th, 2015

As the novelist, who knows the nightmare of facing, without the slightest inspiration, a desperately white sheet for hours, the business leader sometimes fears this Moment of Truth, when he will have to engage his organization in an apparently dull, unspectacular but necessary challenge. That is why HSE, sustainability, compliance, risk, quality, excellence, innovation, diversity and others often remain buzzwords, unless… we take the courage to stand for it, risk our image and expose ourselves…

Very recently, I witnessed that kind of courage. The leader of a corporate function in a large multinational (2 levels below the CEO) decided that his team’s record in HSE could be greatly improved. It wasn’t about “surfing the new fashionable corporate wave” (HSE wasn’t the top of the agenda). It was “one of” the several themes that leaders had to juggle with. But he had made up his mind that this was important.

On the first day of his community’s convention, after a break, I observed him draw a caricature on a flip chart and a fine: “€. 10.- for anyone who would not hold the handrail” (a classic of HSE ground rules). But, far from over, he stood at the bottom of the stairs, “fining” with humour anyone having failed to comply. Roughly half of the people were caught and a bit surprised. He did it time and time again during the whole convention, still with the same humour (pretending it would pay our expensive fees… as if we were expensive!)… But by the end of it, everyone had got the reflex and, ever since I find myself holding the handrail of my staircase…And his community of leaders probably all remember it by now and has started to engage others. His humility, humour and resilience made us change behaviour… Amazing!

One of my partners shared an interesting article with me. It talks about Paul O’Neill back in 1987, when this Public Servant had been chosen as the new CEO of the embattled and struggling firm called Alcoa. His first leadership act took place at the first conference he ran in front of Wall-Street analysts. Whereas we can easily imagine them being hungry for blood, lay-offs, cost cuttings, downsizing, refocusing and others, Paul went on stage and said: “I want to talk to you about worker safety!”… You can imagine the deafening silence! He went on, explaining the link he was making between business results and workers’ safety and his very ambitious objective of “zero injuries”! A wind of panic blew amongst the “investors” but, under Paul O’Neill’s tenure Alcoa dropped from 1.86 lost work days to injury per 100 workers to 0.2. By 2012, the rate had fallen to 0.125. And, equally important to Wall-Street, when Paul retired, Alcoa stock was 5 times higher than when he had taken over.

What is the link between those stories? Employees and organizations are flooded by a tsunami of wonderfully well intentioned initiatives, buzzwords, posters, measurements… This overdose has one effect: “The surfer’s syndrome”. Remember when the surfers paddle away from the beach on their board and that every few seconds a new wave threatens to wash them away? They have learned to bow their head down, dive under the wave and re-emerge, safe and immaculate (ie. unchanged) from the other side, ready for the next wave that they will have to avoid being hit by.

It is not HSE or another topic that matters. Of course, the theme has to be relevant and connected with the Deep Intent, vision and strategy of the organization. But it is the behavioural and cultural aspects that are critical.

By focusing on one theme, these leaders demonstrate to themselves, to their leaders, to the organization that they are capable of mobilizing and engaging their organization into a significant change. One of my great moments of leadership was when I took over the destinies of the ski resort where I live. We were almost dead, some of our best hotels had gone belly up and our sports center was in bankruptcy. Well… that was easy! People were acutely aware of the need to change and get their act together. I just had to direct their energy. But try and have a hundred intelligent and rebellious leaders to hold a handrail as a symbol of their engagement in HSE… That is far more challenging and indicative of our capacity to engage others.

A company does not change through a change plan!

An organization doesn’t become innovative by labelling the innovations in its pipeline!

People don’t embrace diversity by ticking the box of gender or race!

A plant does not reach zero injury through posters, slogans and procedures!

By changing courageously our attitude, by sticking our neck out, by taking a courageous stand on one theme, we, leaders provoke our people to change attitude. By changing our attitude, we mobilize the whole organization and the culture change

And, if you intend to become truly exemplar, do not expect a quick change. A child psychologist once explained to me that research in his field showed that it took up to 50 feedback to change a child’s behaviour…So don’t complain, it is easier with adults!

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