This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of the CIPD's Work. magazine.
‘My shoelace broke, and I remember looking down and thinking, ‘I really don’t want to buy another pair of shoes for this job’. So that morning I resigned.’
Myke & I worked together at one of the big banks; me as Head of Innovation and Myke as a junior marketing manager, just starting out in his career. He’s a smart and interesting guy who loved to get involved in any work we were doing on innovation, despite it not really being ‘his job’. He was also into podcasting before podcasting was a thing, a side hobby that he always talked about, being a devoted Apple fanatic.
Despite having this energy and knowledge about the changing digital world, the tight hierarchy in place got in the way of him being able to share his knowledge or put his passions to good use. So he left. And whilst a shoe-lace breaking might sound like a slightly cavalier approach to career development to some, it worked out pretty well for Myke. Relay FM is now one of the most well-known and respected Podcast networks in the world, with its flagship show, Connected, being showcased at an Apple event in 2018.
When asked ‘what is it that makes you different?’, it's typical for companies to reply ‘our people’. However, the reality is it’s not the people that make a company different, but what the company allows their people to do. Do they see them as a real person, with valid opinions, views, and experiences outside of their job, able to be shared freely? Or as a number, a person that can only be listened to once they’ve reached a certain grade in the company?
This hierarchical approach is damaging to a company in two ways.
The first is that it restricts the flow of ideas through the business, leaving all innovative thinking and strategic decision making to the few at the top, who all probably have similar demographics, views and life experiences, creating a fairly inside-out view of the world. The more enlightened senior managers recognise this limited perspective – but are still more likely to spend time and money with outside agencies before they explore the great thinking they have hidden within their own headcount.
But there’s a bigger, more expensive problem this creates too – employee retention.
In his book 'Drive’, Dan Pink writes eloquently about how autonomy is one of the three biggest factors in human motivation (alongside competency and relatedness). Having a tight, hierarchical approach can leave people feeling strangled, frustrating them if they have a good idea but simply can’t make headway through the system around them.
So these people (that companies have invested a lot of time and energy in developing) leave and either work for a competitor or do their own thing, not interested in having to earn the right to be heard, in only having their ideas considered once they’ve notched up five years’ service. Not only does the company then have to find and train someone to replace them, but with the ideas being implemented elsewhere, it leaves them playing catch up on an important new innovation which they could have been taking the lead on.
Your people might well be your greatest asset, but just because you say it doesn’t make it true. You’ve got to let them be different and let them make a difference.
If not, they’ll go and make a difference elsewhere.