According to Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hougaard, the only way to truly engage with employees and unlock their full potential is to appeal to their intrinsic desire for happiness.
The two began a movement for a more compassionate workplace with their consulting organization, Potential Project. Their mission — to transform leaders through mindfulness, selflessness and compassion, or MSC — continues in their new book, “The Mind of the Leader.” The authors propose that leadership development should shift away from focusing on the bottom line toward learning that includes becoming a more effective and kind leader.
Hougaard spoke with Chief Learning Officer to discuss workplace disconnect, compassionate leadership and people-centric business.
Chief Learning Officer: Your new book opens with a study discussing the disconnect between leaders’ perception of their effectiveness and employees’ experiences. Can you talk a little about that?
Rasmus Hougaard: You’ll see the numbers in the book, but basically it’s saying that leaders think they’re doing a great job at motivating and engaging their people, but people really don’t think that their managers are doing that. The point of this whole study to me is that there’s a massive leadership crisis.
As an example of one of the companies that have reacted to the consequences of this, Accenture went out and completely dumped their performance review system, which is a very old-fashioned way of managing performance. Nobody is going to be engaged by an annual conversation ending up with a number that then defines who you are. It’s not personal, it’s not human, it’s nothing that any normal human being thrives by.
CLO: How would using the skills outlined in your book — mindfulness, selflessness and compassion — help leaders fulfill employees’ basic need for happiness?
Hougaard: In terms of mindfulness, if you as a leader are not present with the people you’re leading, if you’re not really paying attention when they’re talking, first of all you learn nothing; second, you have wasted your time and their time; and third, if you’re not mindful and present, they will know you don’t care. Basically, being present is the foundation for creating the conditions for your people to be happy, to be engaged, to be committed.
Selflessness is really the ability to take yourself out of the equation. It’s not about you, it’s not about serving your own ego and your own needs. It’s that ability of always putting your people center, your people at the front, so they can develop. It makes a lot of sense if you’re the CEO or even a middle manager of an organization. If you can create a team where people are not only thriving but professionally doing really well, your job is going to be much easier and the bottom line is going to really thrive from that.
And for compassion — I’ll use an example here of the chief analytics officer of Accenture. He found, about four years ago, that with the growth of Accenture now being 425,000 employees, the culture is not very cohesive anymore. And he realized that his team of around 6,000 people were not as happy anymore because the conditions were not there to meet and to be connected. So he brought compassion into all of his management meetings, into how he created policies for his people. Meaning everybody felt they were cared for, everybody felt that their needs were being taken into consideration, that if you did something wrong your manager would have your back.
So, though mindfulness and selflessness and compassion may sound slightly fluffy or weird, it’s really about having that ability to check in with what matters to human beings, whether they’re employees or leaders or children. It really doesn’t matter. If we bring those basic human qualities into leadership, our people are going to be happier and they’re going to be better performing.
CLO: You’ve worked with CLOs and learning leaders in the past. How can they work to develop managers and executives who embody this sort of leadership?
Hougaard: The first thing is, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” So, whenever you as a leader want your managers to embody these qualities, you’ve got to be it yourself first. The second thing I think is … this book is a call for kind of revolutionizing the way we think about leadership. It goes against the grain. If you as a learning leader want to buy in for this, you’ve got to start talking with the top of your organization to make sure there is general alignment.
I think if you want to have a good light tower of what you need to do, look at millennials and look at what is driving engagement with millennials. They are not just happy with a paycheck and benefits. They want work that is meaningful, they want work that is engaging, they want work where they feel connected to each other and to their leaders. So, look at millennials, look at what they like and what they want, and start to bring that into your culture in any way you can. That is definitely going to get you in the direction of more MSC leadership.
CLO: A core principle in your book is remaining people-focused. Describe what a “people-first” strategy looks like.
Hougaard: Here I like to use Marriott as an example. It’s interesting that such an old culture and such a massive, massive organization can actually maintain a people-first culture, but they really do. With a very simple business philosophy of, “If we take care of our people, they take care of our guests, and business takes care of itself.”
When the financial crisis hit in 2008 and 2009, Marriott went from an occupancy rate of around 85 percent down to about five percent. Rather than just laying off people, they seized the opportunity to focus on learning initiatives for their employees. Marriott has a strong philosophy of, “We want to see our people grow.” Most of the vice presidents and senior managers in Marriott started very low-level, and they just worked their way up.
Another principle is making sure that leadership within the organization is truly human. That they are really focused on people, not just on clients and on business outcomes. And then a third thing that is really important to Marriott in terms of maintaining this people-centric focus is having a long-term strategy. There’s a lot of tendency nowadays to always meet the quarterly budgets and that is always going to put pressure on the most vulnerable stakeholders, which is always the employees. That’s where organizations sacrifice.
CLO: What is the best example of MSC leadership from your book?
Hougaard: It’s a quote that I believe we put up front in the book, quite early on, from an executive from Audi-Volkswagen who basically says, “Leadership is about unlearning management and relearning being a human being.” Leadership is not just about developing a strategy and executing on the numbers, but it is just as much the inner work of understanding and managing yourself, so you can understand and manage your people, so you can understand and manage the culture and the organization that you’re leading. That comes down to being human rather than being a learned manager.
Mariel Tishma is an editorial intern at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.