What the CEO Knows – and you don’t. V is for Valency

Valency Image Final

In his book What Leaders Really Do Harvard professor John Kotter describes setting out to work-shadow a number of high profile CEOs – and being astonished by the results.  He had expected that from the Olympian heights of the CEO suite these mighty leaders would be able to manage their schedules in such a way as to give themselves uninterrupted time on the issues of most significance to their businesses.  What he found was that these individuals often flicked from one subject to another with astonishing rapidity, more like a juggler keeping many balls in the air than a chess player shutting out all distractions and focusing solely on the implications of a number of next possible moves.

How then, Kotter began to wonder, did these people get anything done?  The answer, he revealed, was agendas and networks.  The CEO agenda typically had on it there to six major things only.  The must-dos for business survival and success.  They moved those things forward by using their networks.  Intriguingly these networks not only consisted of the obvious formal internal relationships but internal, external, formal, and informal networks of every kind.  They combined all sorts of connections with information, ideas, opinions, advice and decisions, all aimed at moving a step closer to achieving one of those big agenda items.  We have created a term to describe this.  It’s ‘valency’.  Valency (in chemistry at least) is the combining power of an element.  In business, it is the combining power of an organisation to bond together leaders, managers, staff, stakeholders and partners in powerful permutations.

So the question for VIDA leaders is “What’s your valency?”  Put slightly differently:  how good are you at combining the efforts of other people?  And where can you find more people whose knowledge, insights, skills and experience you can combine?  This combining attribute is a lot more than just networking, or being well networked.  That may keep you informed of opportunities, get you in to talk to people you might want to meet or give you a contact in another country when you are travelling.  It won’t make you a leader who can form the emotional bonds that make people want to work together, get results, create a loyalty to the organisation they work for, tell the positive stories about it, whether to co-workers or friends on a night out.

Customer service, net promoter scores, talent recruitment and retention, innovation, becoming truly customer-centric, all these things start with Valency – combining power – and it comes first of all from you as a leader.

What’s the big idea?  Is it the vision, where you are all going to go together?  Or what you are going to build between you all?  Is it the journey you will be going on?  Is it what you will deliver to other people?  It could be the overall purpose of the organisation, it could be to build an organisation on a specific set of values.  All these things act as combining forces.  They bring people together around a common aim, or aspiration. A vision or a set of values.

ARM is the world’s leading semiconductor IP company.  Founded by twelve engineers working out of a converted barn in Cambridge in 1990 it now employs over 4,500 people in 61 countries.  ARM partners (the people who use ARM’s technology under licence in the silicon chips they produce) ship nearly five billion ARM technology-based chips every quarter.  ARM technologies reach 80% of the global population and if you own a smart phone or a car made in the last twenty years there’s quite a lot of ARM close to you.  For many years while this success was being built ARM was unique as far as I know in that its HR strategy was the same as its marketing tagline:  Connect – Collaborate – Create.  From its internal structures to its external partnerships and its ability to bring together the worlds’ leading thinkers in its field, ARM wins the Vybrant prize for Valency in every way.

What could managers learn from parents?


It has often been my observation that most people’s only role model for their first management job is a parent or a manager they have had in the past.

They then copy what they liked about that person and do the opposite of the things they didn’t like.  I have never thought that was a good idea.

Now according to Curious Minds Magazine psychologists at Harvard have uncovered 5 things that parents do to raise ‘good’ kids.

You can find the piece here but in a nutshell the five are:

  • Spend quality time with them
  • Be a strong moral role model
  • Teach them to care for others and set high expectations
  • Have them practice appreciation and gratitude
  • Get them to see the big picture.

So what would the world of work be like if every manager set out to only have ‘good’ people working with them, by applying those five principles?

Strategy or Leadership?

strategy-or-leadershipThe book Total Competition by Ross Brawn and Adam Parr is subtitled ‘Lessons in Strategy from Formula One’. Although one of the driving forces behind it was Parr’s study of strategy for a PhD, it could equally well be described as ‘Lessons in Leadership’. While Formula One might not be everyone’s cup of tea there is no denying that it is hugely complex – mind-bogglingly so in fact. And it is certainly dynamic. It is not unusual for the slowest car at the end of a season to be going faster than the fastest car was at the beginning of the year. Oh, and while all that development is going on all of the teams will be designing next year’s car at the same time.

The book takes the form of a series of recorded conversations between Parr and Brawn. Parr, who was Chief Executive of the Williams F1 team from 2006 to 2012 mostly asks the questions but also cleverly picks out the themes and consistencies in Brawn’s behaviours and ways of working. Parr describes Brawn as ‘the most successful competitor in Formula One to date’ and it is hard to argue with that. Including the World Sports Car Championship and the Le Mans 24 hour race won by the revolutionary Jaguar XJR-14, the last car he designed himself, Brawn has led five different teams to a total of 24 Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles in three different racing formulae over a period of four decades. Strategy maybe, but there is a world of intelligent and hugely successful leadership being described here.

I am sometimes dubious about trying to translate sporting success into business principles – the motivations are often so different. Although, since I have helped to create some sporting successes by using the team development principles we apply in business I cheerfully admit to some crossover!   Nonetheless, the real value in this wonderful book (assuming you are not an F1 fan) lies in the 15 Observations with which Parr closes it. I am not going to reproduce them here. That would not be fair – and might prevent you going on your own voyage of discovery. Besides, reading Brawn’s descriptions of why he has operated in the ways he has is half the fun – and most of the learning.

Aspiring to Redundancy?

Eddie Jones, England Rugby coach, now ’10 for 10’ as they would say in the US (10 wins from 10 games played if you are not familiar with the jargon) has said that he “wants to make himself redundant.” That should be the aim of every great leader.

I had the enormous privilege to sail on the 1996/97 BT Global Challenge. A yacht race for amateur crews the ‘wrong way’ around the world. I have often been called brave for doing that, but the real heroes were those who sailed in the original British Steel Challenge – and my skipper, 3 years later on, was one of those.

Simon Walker sailed as Mate on Rhone Poulenc in the British Steel Challenge. They had three different skippers on the way round so Simon became the de facto leader of the crew. Astonishingly, that achievement was not enough to get him a role as skipper on our race. He had to work very hard to convince Sir Chay Blyth that a whole sequence of Atlantic crossings as skipper, plus a win in an around Britain and Ireland race, together with other exploits most of us can only dream of, qualified him to lead our Toshiba Wave Warrior crew around the world.

Fortunately for all of us on Simon’s crew, Sir Chay recognised leadership when he saw it in action. And here’s the point. Simon told us before we set out that his major goal for the race was to spend the entire last leg (the almost insignificant Atlantic crossing from Boston back to Southampton – just 3,000 mile across an ocean which has sunk the Titanic amongst many others) in his bunk, sleeping.

So what kind of leadership is that? Well it is the kind of leadership that endeavours to teach others everything the leader knows and set them free to continue the journey on their own. In fact Simon achieved his ambition for the race as we sailed into Boston harbour on the penultimate leg. Under the tightly focussed cameras of a fleet of motorboats and helicopters filming and broadcasting the event on live TV, our crew performed a dancing sequence of spinnaker gybes – complex manoeuvers on a 67 foot yacht travelling at over 20 knots in crowded conditions – without a single hitch. Perhaps the proudest moment of our entire trip around the world was hearing Simon say that he had done nothing as we negotiated our way to the finishing line there, except wander around the deck and take photographs.

So, go on Eddie Jones. Once you have made England world champions, beaten everyone who has faced you and your team down, then yes please show us all the finest example of leadership anyone can – and make yourself redundant. I’m with you on that.

The Story of Leadership Research and Development

jeanne-darcTime was when Leadership was not even a subject of thought or study. People were leaders or they weren’t. In point of fact this sort of ‘leadership’ was almost always conferred by class or status. There are some notable exceptions – Joan of Arc and Wat Tyler might fit well into that category – but long before it was ever considered, leadership was generally conferred. This led to the ‘Great Man’ theory – leaders are born, not made. Or put another way, people who display great vision, personality and competence rise to prominence and affect the course of history or business. Equally however, many people who display great vision, personality and incompetence rise to prominence and affect the course of history or business, and not usually for the better so that is not wholly useful. It does however illuminate an important point in looking at leadership research. Which is that much of the research, when examined carefully, tells us more about the attributes needed to get to the top of a hierarchical organisation than anything about how to lead it effectively once you have got there.

The next development was to look for traits that might differentiate leaders from others. This seemed promising, although the initial research identified a very large number of potential ‘leadership traits’. Then someone thought to go back to all the people who had identified, to take one at random, ‘responsible’ as a trait of leaders, and the whole concept unravelled. It turned out that everyone who identified a given trait had a different idea of what they meant by it.

Researchers then turned to styles, giving us a number of variants on ‘people-centered’ versus ‘task-centered’, culminating in the Situational Leadership model of Hersey and Blanchard – an extremely useful concept for dealing with individuals or a small team, but not actually a model of how to lead an organisation.

Richard Boyatzis’ superb study for the American Management Association, published as The Competent Manager, seems off course: surely management is not the same as leadership? But that concept lies a few years ahead yet. And Boyatzis’ conclusion that: “There are transferable management competencies which enable good managers to be effective and which are not to do with technical aspects of the work,” is profound and far-reaching. It was Abraham Zaleznik’s 1977 Harvard Business Review article Managers and Leaders: Are they different? that kicked off the ‘Management vs Leadership’ agenda. Zaleznik’s conclusion was: “Not only do managers and leaders fulfil different functions in an organisation, but the functions are themselves in opposition since managers generally want to preserve the status quo and leaders to change it. Managers and leaders are fundamentally different types of people.” The point about managers wanting to preserve the status quo and leaders wanting to change it is now fairly much taken for granted. Except inasmuch as modern organisations have for many years been trying to inculcate ‘leadership at every level’ – getting managers to act like leaders and look for change and improvement at every opportunity. Nonetheless, Zaleznik may have been more precise than we want to give him credit for. Managers and leaders may indeed be very different people, no matter how much we want people to be able to switch hats whilst staying in the same role.

The story of leadership research and development continues…

Performance and Pay


Whatever the relationship between pay and performance in a given organisation, communication is the key. If the link between the two is clearly understood and incentive schemes are seen to reward on a fair and transparent basis, then things generally work well for all concerned. As well as ensuring that schemes are equable, clear and properly communicated right throughout the business, training managers and leaders is vital. One major professional services firm completely revised their Performance Management Process in order to be able to link reward properly to performance against role requirements, objectives and behaviours. A complete set of Performance Guides covering every level and area of the organisation was created. The guides, complete with all the process documentation, then formed the training materials for roll-out workshops delivered to everyone with responsibility for assessing performance across Europe and the Asia Pacific region. Within two years from their first adoption of a behavioural framework, the organisation was able to link pay to performance in a clearly understood and motivational way. The training programme that supported the design, publication and communication of the new process, was fundamental to this success.