Book review: Freedom Inc and transforming from how and why organizations

NOTE — This is a really good book — the chapter on "how" and "why" organizations alone is worth the read. "How" organizations spell out exactly what employees should do. Not surprisingly, no one makes decisions and the CEO winds up playing the part of surrogate parent and referee. How organizations also tend to manage to the 3 per cent — focusing on the handful of nonperformers who go rogue and make it their life mission to break every rule. So employers ratchet up enforcement that doesn't faze the 3 per cent and leaves the only 97 per cent of the workforce demoralized and disengaged. "Why" organizations instead offer up a clear, concise and compelling strategic vision that filters and frames all decisions and actions. If an action advances the strategic vision, it's worth doing. And trust that frontline staff who do the heavy lifting will do the right thing.

Freedom Inc. Free Your Employees and Let Them Lead Your Business to Higher Productivity, Porifts and Growth

By Brian Carney and Isaac Getz

A customer’s waiting in line to rent a car at O’Hare International and losing his patience. The trainee behind the Avis service counter is struggling to get the job done.

"Will you please hurry up," says the customer. "I’m in a hurry."

"Give me a break, I’m a trainee," says the overwhelmed trainee.

"Would you tell me how on earth a training program could pass somebody as clumsy and as ignorant as you seem to be?" asks the customer.

"Well, if you want to hear something really sick, I’m the president of the company," says Robert Townsend.

When Townsend took the helm of Avis back in 1962, the sleepy company hadn’t turned a profit in 13 years. To turn the company around, Townsend knew he had to change the culture. So he started with his senior management team. His executives had come down with severe case of us versus them. "Us being the geniuses at headquarters and them being the people in the field in the red jackets who were renting cars and paying our salaries and doing an enormous amount of hard work," says Townsend.

So at a Monday senior management meeting, Townsend casually mentioned that they were enrolling in the Avis school for rental agents at O’Hare. Classes started next week. Enrolment was optional although their bonus compensation plans were tied to earning a passing grade. "There were great screams of rage from these busy executive geniuses," recalled Townsend.

Together, they stayed at a motel by the Chicago airport. Wearing big "I’m a trainee" buttons and red jackets, they served customers in the morning. Studied in the afternoon. Wrote tests and did homework at night. And, in the process, gained a new appreciation for frontline staff.

"When we got through that course we were wearing red jackets at headquarters," says Townsend. "The us and them thing was history."

But that wasn’t all. Based on their personal experience at trainee school, Townsend and his leadership team made it their personal mission to eliminate every work practice that prevented agents from doing their best for customers. Townsend constantly asked frontline staff what made them mad, what took too long, what cost too much, what was too complicated, and what was just plain dumb. Townsend then acted on what he heard and by 1965 Avis was one of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S.

"In just three years he liberated Avis and unleashed the initiative and action of its thousands of employees," say authors and Wall Street Journal editor Brian Carney and ESCP Europe Business School professor Isaac Getz. "Townsend and his managers got busy removing the ropes and barnacles that prevented people from showing how fast and how far they could go in their boat. This freed them, too, to adjust their sails on the fly when the wind changed."

Liberating leaders like Townsend turn "how" companies into "why" companies. Instead of telling employees exactly how to do their work with a mountain of policies, procedure, rules, regulations and an army of policing command and control managers, these crusading CEOs ask a single question. Why are we doing the work that we’re doing? And does our work align with our strategic priorities? Asking that question frees up and unleashes the individual initiative and risk-taking instincts of every employee. If you want more innovation, more productivity and more engagement, liberate your people.

And according to Carney and Getz, here’s how you do it.

First, stop telling, start listening and strip away all the symbols and practices that prevent your people from feeling intrinsically equal. Executive privilege is disengaging.

Second, openly and actively share your vision for the company so everyone owns it. "Getting people to emotionally own a corporate vision is a long – indeed, never-ending – task for a liberating leader," say the authors. "Fortunately, in freedom-based companies the vision is always world-class, which facilities its acceptance."

Third, stop trying to motivate staff and instead create a work environment where staff will motivate themselves. "Provide the climate and proper nourishment and let the people grow themselves," says Townsend, the CEO who turned around Avis in the 1960s. "They’ll amaze you."

And lastly, stay alert. Your number one job as a liberation leader is to constantly define, defend and champion the culture and core values of our company. External vigilance is the price of freedom.

The final word on freedom at work goes to William L. McKnight, the legendary CEO of 3M. "If you put fences around people, you get sheep," said McKnight back in 1924. "Give people the room they need."

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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