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The Business-First Mindset

Executives can put business needs first on two levels: (1) by working hard (as individuals) to achieve results and (2) at a deeper level by acting as a catalyst or facilitator to get the best out of others and to build a stronger organization for long term success.

At the second, deeper level, business-first executives spend less time doing their own thinking and promoting their own ideas. Instead, they draw solutions out of others with the number one engaging question: "What do you think?" It's not about putting the needs of others first. Rather, the focus is on the needs of the organization to get the most out of intelligent knowledge workers.

Everyone likes to look good by being seen to have great ideas, solutions to pressing problems. It's like scoring goals, being a hero, but executives who are too me-first in this respect, hence too concerned to be right, can disengage and demoralize others.

In addition to building a stronger organization here are some immediate benefits of a business-first mindset:

  • A greater sense of shared ownership for employees engaged in making strategic decisions.
  • Better decisions result from a greater diversity of input.
  • A stronger sense of collaboration and teamwork.

Executives who are not deeply business-first are not entirely to blame. Competitive organizational cultures drive executives to prove themselves, thus encouraging them to focus on their own achievement needs to the detriment of others.

Individuals operating independently achieve most when they play to their strengths. Generating and promoting one's own solutions are typically greater strengths for most executives than facilitating, engaging others and fostering collaboration.

Executives who adopt a deeper business-first work style can achieve a great deal more by unleashing the full potential of others. They recognize that achieving through others requires them to move slightly out of the limelight. However, many accept the principle without recognizing the extent to which doing their own thinking and promoting their own solutions demonstrates a me-first mindset that is self-defeating if they genuinely want to achieve as much as possible through others.

Being me-first doesn't mean being selfish or narcissistic. It's only human to want to succeed and be self-reliant, but those who get to higher levels in organizations are so good at promoting their views that they can cast a shadow over everyone else. In addition, formal authority confers the right to call the shots whether it is a productive way to operate or not.

In his book, What Got You Here Won't Get You There, the prominent executive coach Marshall Goldsmith wrote that the need to be right underpins all of the 20 bad habits he sees in the executives he coaches. It's no surprise that the most confidently assertive executives with the most compelling solutions to current problems get to the top. It's the same reason why the greatest goal scorers in sports earn the most money.

Like all major strengths, however, strong analytical thinking can be a weakness if overplayed: no one else has any ideas worth listening to, hence the feeling that people need to be told what to do. This mindset is in line with the metaphor of the organization-as-person, which means that the "head" does the thinking while the "hands" are only there to execute.

Here are some of the ways that business-first executives behave when focused on the deeper organizational agenda:

  • They draw solutions out of others by asking them what they think.
  • They act as catalysts and facilitators, stimulating others to think rather than scoring goals with their own solutions and needing to be right.
  • They utilize a win-win approach to resolving conflict.
  • They foster collaboration instead of promoting only their own function's needs.
  • They push as much decision making downward as possible.
  • They actively encourage lower level employees to challenge them.

Before we explore the business-first way of working further, let's examine what organizations need and look more closely at why executives have a me-first mindset.

Organizational Needs

In order to make full use of creative thinkers and retain them, their brains need to be fully engaged. A top-down, directive style of leadership has limited utility with intelligent knowledge workers and can be demoralizing, leading to disengagement and lost productivity. Here are some organizational needs that require deeper engagement of everyone:

  1. Innovation demands fresh thinking from all employees, a diversity of ideas freely expressed in cultures with an entrepreneurial flair.
  2. Developing future executives requires helping them build their confidence, which can best be done by allowing them to do their own thinking, make their own decisions and learn from their own mistakes.
  3. Collaboration is a high priority organizational need thanks to increasing complexity and rapid change.
  4. Consistent with the "wisdom of crowds" theme, diversity of input can make for better decisions, operational or strategic.

Innovation is more common in young entrepreneurs than in senior executives, with the exception of CEOs like Steve Jobs. To fully tap into fresh thinking, innovation needs to be more bottom-up than top-down. CEOs who try to emulate Steve Jobs by being a major source of new product ideas run the risk of failing to fully engage and retain their most creative talent and of failing to build a culture of innovation.

How Me-First Executives Behave

Here are some examples:

In meetings, me-first executives debate issues by promoting their own views rather than building on the input of others or actively drawing them out. Their focus is on the content under discussion rather than the process for making the best decisions and they debate issues with a win-lose motivation.

Me-first executives most enjoy DOING things: solving problems, taking action, making decisions, developing new strategies, in short doing their own mental work rather than being a catalyst or facilitator. They want to operate like a partner in a law firm managing self-sufficient lawyers so they can devote the bulk of their time to their own legal casework. They don't see being a facilitator as doing "real work".

Being too committed to our own views and identifying too strongly with the role of "solution generator" can make it hard to admit being wrong. Naturally, the higher the executive's profile and the more public the commitment to a solution, the harder it is to admit an error.

To take a political example: how can politicians campaigning for election admit to being wrong on an issue and still be credible? The reason they can't admit being wrong is that they have staked everything on appearing to be an expert in the first place instead of on their ability to draw the best solutions out of others.

Me-first executives also base their confidence on their technical or functional expertise and experience, not on the process skills necessary to draw out the best thinking from others. Their very identity is based on the content of their work, not on what it takes to be a catalyst or facilitator. 

When colleagues ask them for advice, me-first executives offer it freely, thus "feeding others fish rather than teaching them to fish". A facilitative approach uses coaching questions to stimulate people to think through issues for themselves.

The influencing style of me-first executives is mainly one-way. They present facts and arguments to influence people rather than foster two-way dialogue aimed at developing joint solutions. Good questions can influence people in a manner that engages them in developing a mutually acceptable solution. Greater ownership and commitment can be achieved by allowing others to have input into decisions.

Why Executives Operate in Me-First Mode

In most organizations, scoring goals is more highly rewarded than facilitative actions. Getting to the top is very much like campaigning for election: promoting one's own solutions. Top goal scorers in sports are more highly rewarded than top coaches. You get what you pay for: until organizations reward executives for acting as catalysts, coaches and facilitators, they will continue to get self-sufficient goal scorers.

In addition to the fact that organizations reward individual achievement, all executives want to prove themselves, to be accepted and valued. They seek to differentiate themselves by playing to their strengths and by developing them further. However, the drive to contribute one's own ideas is more appropriate for lower level employees. The problem is that too many executives are loath to give up "what got them here", to paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith.

There is also the fact that executives often can't think of anything to do other than to delve into operational matters that should be delegated. Getting things done is also easier than strategic or creative thinking. The former is concrete and tangible while the latter is abstract and ambiguous.

While they should be focusing externally and on strategy, it's harder to decide how best to invest time in exploring the broader picture than it is to get involved in concrete operational problems.

At a basic level, we are all motivated by immediate gratification. We know that dieting is good for our long-term health but our urge to eat is immediate and thus more powerful than our desire for long-term good health. Most of us find it challenging to postpone immediate gratification for the sake of a longer-term goal.

The fact that we get a greater buzz out of concrete achievement than from fostering the thinking of others combines with the power of immediate gratification to explain why me-first executives focus more on meeting their own needs than those of the organization.

It's easy to rationalize that one's team members are too busy, not competent or insufficiently motivated to do the right thing. But this is a vicious circle because the more responsibility executives take for day-to-day results, the less their team members will take. That is, executives who involve themselves in lower level activities psychologically disempower their team members who reason, maybe unconsciously, as follows: "If the boss is going to worry about that, then why should I?"

Becoming More Business-First

To become more business-first, start by making your own list of organization needs and keep them handy, somewhere visible. Then, regularly challenge yourself regarding every task you undertake: "Is this something I want to do or am I really adding value to broader organizational needs?"

Also ask yourself: "How am I harming the organization's deeper needs by doing this myself?" Think about yourself strategically: "How can I add most value to the organization today, this week, this month and this year?"

Regardless of your organizational level, you can change the culture of your own unit, function or department. Start rewarding your team members for their facilitative efforts at least as much as for their own ideas. For example, convey the expectation that team members coming to meetings should contribute ideas that they have drawn out of their teams before offering their own thoughts.

Be a role model: do more asking – "What do you think?" and less suggesting. This simple question has many virtues:

  1. It shows that you value others, more so than offering a pat on the back.
  2. It's the best way to engage and stimulate others to think.
  3. It takes the pressure off of you to own or know everything.
  4. It fosters shared ownership, joint accountability.
  5. It motivates people, because they will take more ownership for their own plans and decisions than for yours, no matter how you TELL them.
  6. It can generate better decisions.

Take the last virtue. Many executives propose their own solutions and then ask: "What do you think of that?" A common response to this question is: "Sounds OK", or something equally neutral. It's not that they are necessarily afraid to disagree with you. It's just that you have asked them to respond to your thinking rather than stimulated them to do their own thinking. What else can someone say who hasn't thought about an issue very much before? Of course, they may be more challenging, but if you're doing all the thinking, you may not get many fresh ideas from them if you only ask for feedback on your own ideas.

Thinking strategically about yourself is more than just allocating your time and personal strengths to bigger picture issues. It's also about your deeper value proposition, what you stand for and who you are. To what extent can you put others needs ahead of your own? It's not about being totally selfless, but striking a better balance between two extremes.

Nor is it about always being a coach and never doing anything. Every executive has to be a playing coach. A rough rule of thumb is to spend 20% of your time developing your own solutions and 80% acting as a catalyst and focusing on the organization's needs.

A further point of clarification: we're not talking about servant leadership. Executives need to engage and consider people, not serve them. The organization's needs must come first if it is to prosper in the long-term. This is compatible with making tough decisions about people.

The Place of Leadership

Level 5 leaders, as described by Jim Collins in Good to Great, have humility. But isn't the phrase "humble leader" an oxymoron? The term "leader" has an unavoidably heroic connotation, hence why I've been talking about executives rather than leaders.

To further the business-first agenda, we should stop calling executives leaders, recognizing that there are really only independent acts of leading. Executives are managers by virtue of their position; leadership is an act, not a role. This may be too radical for many, but think of the psychological implications of calling yourself a leader. Doesn't such a label encourage deference?

The currently popular language of "followership" places employees in a subordinate position by definition. In my view, followers don't so much challenge their leaders as show leadership themselves when they disagree with their boss. In any case, we need to watch out for language that enourages deference if we want employees to challenge their bosses.

It's hard to like the status of being a leader, along with its associated deference, while credibly claiming to be free of the me-first mindset. If you need a label and don't want to call yourself a manager, pick executive, catalyst, facilitator, coordinator or another label that is less lofty than leader.

See alsoLeadership and Management Reinvented for starters.

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