Hidden Lessons in Leadership #29

In a New York Times interview Andrew M. Thompson, co-founder and C.E.O of Proteus, spoke about how he advances the capability of his company by creating and maintaining what he calls “ a leadership culture as opposed to a management culture.”  As Andrew noted, “culture in our company is a really big deal, and we have a values system built around quality, teamwork and leadership.”


Why?  At Proteus ideas leading to patents is a big deal so innovation is a part of everyone’s job. As Andrew tells it, in the lobby of the company “there are shelves of big glass jars and everyone’s name in the company is on one of them” and “if you file a patent or have your name on a patent, we give you a little foam brain” and in these jars is where the foam brain goes.  There is visible recognition but no money (additional) involved.  Accordingly, it seems Andrew realizes that ensuring the viability of the business rests upon ensuring the flow and emergence of ideas.


Fertile Ground is Needed

As discussed in Leading the Bottom from the Top, leaders must create the space so that people can freely exercise their capabilities: A workplace—physical, psychological and temporal space—wherein people can freely exercise their capabilities without fear and constraint.  In other words structure, culture and management practice must align with vision as well as support the mission and its corresponding strategy.


Further, at Proteus there is a bias toward action and risk taking.  This means making a mistake does not earn a penalty, for if it did then people would be fearful of putting forth creative ideas.  As Andrew recognizes, “its really important that you don’t penalize failure.”  At Proteus there is a “very strong bias to action over analytics, and for learning from mistakes and moving forward.”


What is being said is that you learn from a mistake and use the knowledge gained to improve (i.e. move forward).  Both learning-as-you-go and going-as-you-learn are complimentary ways of connecting learning to improvement. Because the conduct of business—any business—provides opportunities to learn and to improve each and every day those in authority must provide enable people to seize these opportunities.  Simply you realize progress without learning!


Recognizing What’s Important

Fostering a sense of what Andrew calls “mutuality” is an important element in the culture as well.  According to Andrew building “a very high level of trust, and a very mutually respectful organization where people work with each other and where employees are recognizing each other—rather than management doing it—“ promotes this sense of mutuality.  One activity that Andrew describes involves employees nominating others (individuals, groups or teams) for recognition for “doing things that specifically demonstrate” the company’s values.  In a company meeting, the nominating employees tell the story about how the nominees exemplified the company’s system of values through quality of work, teamwork and/or leadership.


What this does is build a sense of partnerships across the organization—horizontal strength, not vertical power.  Andrew asserted “the best, strongest and most functional organizations are ones where the horizontal relationships are really powerful and where people trust each other, work with each other, support each other, help each other, hold each other’s hands and move forward together.”  This is what truly supports the work of the organization.  Organizations are a network of relationships of people and unless people are enabled to connect in a very human way their work will lose meaning, and it is meaning that motivates.


As explained in an earlier article management mustn’t foster a culture where ‘what’s in it for Me’ colors all activity; where all meaning is expunged from the work of the enterprise.  The organization must be a place where one’s work is a joy and not merely a job!  The leader’s responsibility is to create the context that is conducive to the emergence of a collaborative and entrepreneurial culture; a self-actualizing system not a self-interest based culture.


It seems that there is a sense of partnership throughout the organization.  Partners help each other by serving to their respective needs according to their ability; it is service to others that is internally acknowledged not formally imposed.


Productive Relationships

When the organization’s values resonate with everyone then a unity of mind emerges which fosters consistency, collaboration and shared commitment.  To this end hiring at Proteus is about seeking people that ‘fit’ the culture not just the task of the job.  As Andrew explained, “we don’t hire pegs, we hire people.  We have job descriptions, but we’re looking for very capable authentic personalities…The single most important aspect of the hiring process is the human interaction—the cultural fit and the person’s raw talent…We want people who come to work with their head, their heart and their hands. All of it. You want the whole person walking through the door.”


Clearly Andrew Thompson understands that an organization is a human system not a mechanical system, “where people come to live as well as to work.”  It is a human activity system and as a result culture is capability, for it is enabling to the human spirit.


Andrew’s understanding of leadership is that leaders serve the needs of those performing the work of the organization. As management in authority within Proteus Andrew says his job is not to gain control over people but it “is to get them the resources, whether it’s money or budget, or tools, or training, to get their jobs done.”

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