Our Interview Series continues with the first of the Unconventional Wisdom episodes, where we talk to members of the creative industry who’ve stepped off the well-trodden path and aren’t afraid to speak heretically.
This week we chat with Sue McKenzie, Founder & Principal of Orange Coaching. McKenzie believes that current management norms contribute to organisations that produce “beige”: vanilla cultures where people are bored, potential leaders are simply micromanagers and results are often less than inspiring. She aims to change that.
She has more 20 years of experience running and working in both large and small advertising, design and media companies in the UK, New Zealand and in Australia, including Saatchi&Saatchi, St Luke’s Communications, Grey Worldwide and Carat Media in London.
PART ONE: THE FOLLY OF MOTIVATION AND "BUY-IN"
McKenzie describes the mistake of managers taking on the role of company motivators as being like getting on a nightmarish merry-go-round.
“What happens is that leaders of agencies think that part of their role is geeing up the workforce… making them all energised on a Monday morning… getting them through the week… keeping a check on people’s energy levels – basically keeping an eye on them.
“What happens when you disappear on your two-week holiday? Does motivation fall through the floor? It does if everyone’s relying on you to be there to provide that energy.”
For McKenzie, the best employee is an intrinsically motivated employee who, ultimately, should be able to “spot opportunities, think for themselves, self-regulate, manage themselves in many ways.”. The best leader, therefore, shouldn’t focus on extrinsic motivations, and certainly shouldn’t let team members become reliant on them.
A leader spending time on motivation is doing long-term damage to culture by demonstrating to workers that they should always expect incentive and inspiration to come from an external source. They become a kind of warm-up act to an evermore passive audience.
“[I]f you imagine your organisation’s people as pans, with lids on, when you’re managing them and thinking about motivating them, then you’re keeping all those lids on those pans. Whereas when you find and tap into their intrinsic motivations you’re taking the lids of all those pans and there’s a resource available to you that you’ve been dampening down by thinking that it’s your role to keep people energised and motivated.
“It’s almost the opposite of what we should be doing as leaders.”
SELL OUT OF "BUY IN" – YOU'RE NOT A CULT
McKenzie can’t underline strongly enough how crucial it is for leaders to establish a better environment, create a new (or better defined) set of guiding principles and then bring the team along with them, but she never uses the fashionable term “buy-in”. I ask her why.
“It’s awful. It’s awful. It’s the same as external motivation. [Buy-in implies] it’s the responsibility of the leader to sell the idea to the individual. And [the individual] may or may not like it. And that’s up to them.
“It's about setting the direction of the agency and then letting go - let your team define the route and how they are going to interpret the vision to get the results. Let them think for themselves, for goodness sake - that's what you pay them for."
McKenzie says that “buy in” implies creating something “formulaic”, which is the opposite of what leaders should be doing.
“It’s about creating something that’s… not black and white. It’s not a box. It’s not a hat that we wear. The culture is a living embodiment of the people who are in the team at the time. Whilst it has a set of words and it has a set of expectations, and it can engender a certain number of behaviours, it’s also really important to recognise that that will change depending on the team that you’ve got at the time. It will subtly change. You might have people who are slightly over here on these values. There’ll be more focus on those values in the organisation at that time. And that’s a wonderful thing to observe.”
I admit to Mckenzie that when I hear some self-styled corporate change gurus espouse their philosophies on culture and management practices that their ideas are so fixed and their room for movement so limited that they often sound like leaders of a cult. They’re also often simplistic and ridiculously idealistic. Happily, this sounds neither limited nor fixed.
“No. No. It’s not happy-clappy. It’s not brainwashing. We’re not dicking with you. We’re not messing about with people’s brains here in order to change the way that they perceive the organisation. We are, I believe, helping organisations to be better performers by recognising that when people work together under a common direction that has been set by them that’s when things happen.
“When I worked at St Luke’s, which was a very innovative culture in the 90s in London, they set up because they believed that, actually, the workplace was not right for homo sapiens. You know, being sat somewhere, in a box, and being told what to do for ten hours a day was not the way our brains worked. It didn’t get the best out of people.
“And what they did back-fits into this structure: releasing people from their obligations and just letting them get on and be themselves under a common direction is what this is all about. It’s the opposite of a cult.”
Next week, Sue McKenzie tells us that your corporate values should be as polarising as possible, and why “doing what’s right by me” makes you a beige employee.
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