Hidden Lessons in Leadership #22

Interviews with CEOs, Romil Bahl (PRGX) and Irwin Simon (HAIN Celestial Group), bring to light the importance of people and their ideas to an organization’s success; and consequently why creating a culture that fosters the unfolding of people’s potential is central to the viability of the enterprise.  Two quite business organizations operating in quite different industries striving to essentially create the same kind of culture, one wherein people and ideas flourish.

So how do these different CEOs in different industries do this?  Not so surprising quite similarly!  Why is it not so surprising?  Each recognizes that they are dealing with the very same thing, people, and both acknowledge the value of people and thus believe in the potential that both lies within people and the relationships among people.  In other words, both treat people as subjects.  As Romil Bahl noted, “I have this fundamental belief that these are successful, great people around you who are here for a reason and they have something smart to say.”  This very same belief is reflected in what Irwin Simon said about his approach to leadership: “Just by treating people right, I find that they want to be part of your team…I know how I like to be treated. And you just take that and say, how do I treat people the same way.”   Thus, since all people fundamentally have the same inherent needs how one approaches (his/her) leadership should have (very) similar intentions.

Both Bahl and Simon are communicators and use communication as a means to foster a collaborative culture, though they primarily rely on different mediums; Romil with his monthly emails and Irwin with his face-to-face, eye-to-eye approach.  It is not so much the medium but the intent and integrity of the communicator that is important to building trust—the crucial ingredient of a humanly productive culture. As Romil asserts, “you’ve got to be able to do it consistently, and with passion.”

With new ideas being essential to sustaining the viability of a business, both seek to engage the power of others’ thinking.  A key precept to this end is if there are no questions then thinking is unlikely.  This is why both see questions as the spark that ignites new ideas.  Romil believes “you have to get good people around you and then make sure they feel comfortable putting their ideas out there, because somewhere in there, there’s a gem.”  Similarly Irwin says “I’m a big believer in getting people comfortable in meetings, making them comfortable to ask questions.  And there’s no such thing as a dumb question.”   Of course putting ideas out there requires a safe and trusting culture and not one characterized by fear.

Thinking among people with homogeneous minds will generate few new ideas. Bahl and Simon both acknowledge this.  Bahl said, “the best idea can come from anyone, and let’s open up our minds to getting thinking from cross-functional areas” and Simon seeks “to push people to do other things and see other things” by “taking them out of their comfort zone and putting them into other areas.”   By providing people with different experiences that stretch their minds you increase the likelihood of unfolding the potential that lies within each.  But some might say, how does this work in very large organizations?  It seems impossible!

It also seems reasonable to assume that with more people you increase the diversity of knowledge within the organization and therefore the opportunity for ideas to emerge should increase not decrease. Since creativity emerges with the interplay of different minds, you could expect with more minds exchanging and exploring ideas the more fertile the environment will be for new ideas.

Unavoidably, with an increase in the number of employees and products and services an enterprise takes a more hierarchical form.  This in and of itself is not a bad thing.  The operative word here is not hierarchy but form; that is hierarchy is form not function.  Hierarchy need not diminish capability, though if the purpose of the organizing and management structure is to exact greater control through the hierarchy it will.  Clearly, the focus and orientation of management-in-practice is the difference that makes the difference.


Consequently those in authority must attend to creating a workplace environment—through structure, policy and management practice—wherein the unending thirsts for creativity and innovation can be satisfied and sustained.  By following evolutionary design principles those in authority can sustain the viability and enhance the capability of the enterprise.  But this requires a different understanding of the business of business.

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