The last three months have helped to rejuvenate my faith in the inverted pyramid – a leadership concept that I have always had as my guiding compass in work and life. The idea is that we turn leadership on its head and see our role as one of service, not control. And I would ask you to please suspend those automatic ‘yes, but’ reactions that will often arise in our minds when a do-gooder, theorist writes a blog that is detached from our own realities and day to day pressures. Please give this idea 7 minutes of open-minded consideration; two minutes to clear your head… five minutes to read it.
I am not a religious person, though I am spiritual, but I would ask you to allow me to use the word ‘God’ at the base of the pyramid offered here. I do this as it helps to remind me that we are all connected as humans to an infinite intelligence that we all may label differently – it may be real or symbolised as, or through, God, Allah, Jesus, Buddha, a deceased relative, Aliens, our collective subconscious mind – whatever suits your beliefs. So at the root of this model, ‘God’, there is a wide belief that God lies in every one of us, so we are, in fact, God – every one of us. This is not meant to be a spiritual or theological thesis so I will leave that there. 😉
This inverted triangle concept is tailored here for the business context I feel qualified to talk about, though it would be very easy for you to adapt it for life, public service, and other contexts.
The idea is that the ‘duty’ of each level of the pyramid is to serve the one above.
The God level has been covered.
We, the people are the Government, with those elected to Government consisting of some good people, but also quite a few evasive, political, hypocritical, deceptive individuals that we might often disassociate with, and lead to us labelling our Government as ‘them’. That’s beyond our control until Election Days, apart from vocal feedback, protests, and influence (where we can) through our MPs and on the streets, as far as social distancing allows. Their job is to serve the country, even though some might be more focused on serving themselves or their party, forgetting why they got into politics in the first place. On the whole, I believe they are doing a fair job in very challenging circumstances right now within the COVID, BREXIT, economic and environmental turbulence. Difficult… but that’s what they are paid for. For businesses and the NHS, Government may never be seen to be doing enough as they are balancing what is a complex economic/health situation. I believe self-employed people haven’t had a fair share of support, and I know some businesses might be using aid that they don’t need, but my view is that businesses cannot complain. It is their job to plan for the worst (crises, economic recessions, wars), and hope for the best (economic stability and growth).
Many businesses have had access to free loans, furlough schemes, tax deferments and legal guidance to do what we are responsible for – protecting our businesses, our staff and serving our customers. The Boards, Governors and Trustees have a fiduciary duty to do those things, and members of these groups cannot point a finger at the Government or the PESTLE context they work in, as while they point one finger forward. they need to look at where the other three are pointing!
We must step up to the plate and do what we are mandated and paid to do – balance a strategic awareness with short term realities and serve our leadership team to help them so what they can do better than us… support the frontline staff to run the business. If that means we have to make some tough decisions when the survival of our business is at risk, then we have to consider the ethics and policies with our heads and our hearts and use our best judgement to do what is right for the business and the operational leadership – and live with the consequences. A lot of work in research, modelling, scenario planning… it’s not easy, which is why they call it ‘work’, often with pay/dividends… so for a few months we have to get up earlier, go to bed later, work smarter, and meditate. All this whilst protecting our non-work responsibilities and personal well-being… yes, that’s our job too. It demands high-level emotional intelligence. It’s tough at the top. When you are one person at the top of an organisation you have to do this for yourself – accessing self-help resources, coaches, therapists, and peers, as we have access to the resources at the top to enable that. If not then we have to draw on friends and family where we can. And sometimes that can add to the high-stake challenges we face in life and work.
I separate leaders here from the Board. This is where it gets to operationalising the Board strategy. It is the mini inverted pyramid of CEO/MD, Managers and Team Leaders whose job is to serve the next level that is closer to the frontline staff, and make sure they are served and resourced, by the levels closer to the Board, so they can do their job, which is to resource, focus, and serve the staff. Our job is to empower not control… see the short videos in this blog that illustrate the extraordinary features of empowerment/self-belief/control.
I believe that no one comes to work to do a bad job or do as little as they can for as much money as they can. Most people are good people who want to make a worthy contribution through meaningful work they have an input to, and hopefully, get a little encouragement and recognition from others so they know that what they are doing is of value. This is the root of human motivational theory. Yes… job security and pay are important but they are merely hygiene factors that are low down on human drivers scale and once satisfied (fair pay for fair work with a good balance of security and flexibility), cease to be motivators. For an easy-read overview of motivational theories see this recent article.
Staff will not serve the customer any better than the way they are served by their leaders and their Business. So improving customer service and business success is simple… empower, focus and resource frontline staff to do their job and free them up to use their best judgement to do it. If their judgement is consistently, seriously flawed then fire them. But remember the ‘three fingers pointing back’ concept… I believe there is no such thing as a bad student or a bad employee… it is often the case that the teacher or the manager has not secured, or been provided with, the support, training, focus, and resources to do their job. It’s often our fault if we are leaders or business owners.
So I would modify the inverted pyramid as follows:
With power comes responsibility. With trust and freedom… we must have boundaries and consequences. So empowerment is not a soft option – businesses and leaders must make goals and resources clear, using budgets, targets and interim review points to ensure the business has discipline.
Staff need to know they have scope and flexibility to do what the customer needs in a way that delivers customer excellence, profitably. They also need to know the consequences for the business, their team and themselves if they stray irresponsibly beyond those parameters. In society there are Laws to protect our freedoms – in Business, these are Policies and Budgets. Boundaries liberate us to do what we need to – within them.
“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains” – opening sentence of The Social Contract by Rousseau (1762).