Tuesday, December 12, 2006

It's All About Leadership

The Fargo Forum Newspaper reported that WSI (Workforce Safety and Insurance) will hire consultants to help identify and fix staff morale problems identified in employee surveys and an audit. Fully 50% of employees believe there is favoritism at WSI and fear retaliation if they tell the truth about issues. Only 6% of employees agreed with the statement: “leaders and managers practice what they preach.”

Sandy Blunt, who took over WSI in mid 2004, stated: “I take absolute responsibility because that is what a leader does.” Blunt said consultants are needed to fix morale problems because “morale is more than just being nice.”

As a consultant who will not submit a proposal to “fix” WSI’s morale problems, I will offer some thoughts based on 18 years experience as a senior leader at the Star Tribune newspaper and a leadership and change consultant in three markets over the past 13 years:

I am not surprised at the percentage at WSI who fear retaliation. I’ve never seen an organization where fear of retaliation wasn’t high. The first rule of organizations is conformity, and those who don’t conform are generally punished.

The Gallup Organization reported that 74% of American workers are disengaged clockwatchers who cannot wait to go home at night. Fully 19% of them are actively disengaged meaning that they do less work, are less productive, and miss more time at work at an estimated cost of $300 billion a year. WSI appears to have their share of disengaged employees.

This massive disengagement is symptomatic of organizations in decline. We experience that decline as stress, pettiness, power struggles for control, cynicism, and higher turnover.
This disengagement is a leadership failure. Effective leaders can change this but it is difficult work.

Leaders are not in the happiness business. It is the job of leaders to imagine a better future for the organization and create conditions where employees can choose to be engaged at work. It is the job of supervisors and managers to respectfully and effectively utilize the talents of employees in ways aligned with the vision and/or mission of the organization.

I’ve seen the disengaged of organizations come back to life when they are well led. Leaders have tremendous impact on people and often lack empathy for their effect on others. Mr. Blunt and his staff need to take a long and hard look in the mirror.

Consultants cannot “fix” the problems at WSI. A consultant can provide support, knowledge, experience, methodology, and facilitation. They cannot lead. The hard work of leadership, change management, and renewal of the organization must be done by competent leaders and managers within the organization. That is what leaders do.

Most efforts to change cultures fail—70% to 90%. To evolve sustainable culture change requires courageous, committed, and highly skilled leaders throughout the organization. The leader’s greatest asset is his/her credibility.

If change hasn’t happened in the 2 ½ years of Mr. Blunt’s leadership and if his credibility is damaged, then it will be almost impossible for him to lead change from a position of decline.

If Mr. Blunt stays, he must put all his time and energy into renewing WSI and he needs immediate (not months from now) help in doing so. If, in 3 to 6 months, change cannot be felt and seen, then new leadership is required. While it can take years for a complete culture change, positive and energized leadership can bring about short-term change that shows progress is being made.

In the end, it’s all about leadership.

POSTSCRIPT: Mr. Blunt telephoned me a few days after this commentary was published in The Fargo Forum newspaper. We had a great conversation about leadership. Later I had lunch with him in Bismarck, ND and we again had an energized conversation about leadership.

On April 18, 2007 Mr. Blunt was charged with three felonies: two counts of felony misapplication of entrusted property and one count of conspiring to disclose confidential information. Mr. Blunt is on paid leave while the charges are pending. He will plead not guilty and his board stands behind him. Is this lawbreaking or politics?