A Leadership Lesson to Remember: Don’t Forget About the Machinery

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May 28, 2015

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh of 12 essays from the new book, The Rise of HR; Wisdom From 73 Thoughts Leaders. It’s compiled by Dave Ulrich, Bill Schiemann and Libby Sartain, and sponsored by the HR Certification Institute.

By Mark James

While there are many books written on leadership, most of them focus on charisma and motivating people.

In my view, there are three important areas leaders need to focus on and get right:

  1. Pick the right strategy. This is important, because otherwise you can motivate your organization to follow you in the wrong direction. Sometimes it isn’t clear if you picked the right strategy until years have passed.
  2. Motivate people to pursue your strategy. Picking the right strategy isn’t enough if you can’t motivate anyone to pursue it. This is the most visible aspect of leadership, and it gets plenty of attention.
  3. Understand how the machinery works. This area gets very little attention and yet is arguably the most important of the three. If you don’t understand how the machinery works, it doesn’t matter that you picked the right strategy and motivated people to pursue it — you will be continually disappointed with the results and wonder why your strategy isn’t working like it should. You may decide you haven’t motivated people sufficiently and put all your effort there, only to get the same disappointing results.

Knowing what, and when, to pull

Understanding how the machinery works means using business acumen to know how all the pieces fit together and how you can maximize results by leveraging the machinery.

You have to know which levers to pull and what happens when you pull them. You have to understand how things actually happen in the organization, where the levers are and how they work — and make sure they have been pulled instead of trusting what people tell you without verification.

How do you learn about the machinery? Put in the time and effort. Go see how widgets are made and how the process works so that you thoroughly understand it instead of just saying, “I am strategic and don’t get involved in tactical things.”

If you don’t understand how things work and how people think, you will continually be confused as to why they won’t execute your strategy effectively despite all of your motivational attempts to get them to do it. You have to understand how things happen in the organization, including human nature and the effect of culture.

In addition, you need a strong management operating system (MOS) to ensure you know whether things are getting done the way you expect them to be done. One of the primary reasons leaders fail is lack of a strong MOS. Your MOS will ensure you know exactly what is going on and how it is going. It will help you verify that work is being completed — and in the right way.

Getting feedback is critical, too

The earlier you identify any issues, the easier it is to make a course correction. Making adjustments later takes a lot more time, energy, and money. Without a MOS, people are going to deliver negative surprises.

One of the ways I know what’s happening in my organization is through an annual Voice of the Customer survey. This year, more than 3,400 managers around the world responded to our seventh annual survey, providing feedback that helps us ensure the work we’re doing aligns with business priorities and indicates areas where we need to improve.

One of the areas we receive feedback on is our speed of service. In an effort to continuously improve, we have implemented and executed an action plan.

The entire HR organization completed a self-assessment related to speed, and those results were analyzed and compared to our survey results to identify critical gaps. In addition, all HR employees were required to attend a specially designed training that provided strategies for improving speed and responsiveness.

The “One Honeywell” Culture

I also have been asked how culture is created and sustained within a large, diversified global company like Honeywell. It starts at the top.

I have been fortunate to work for Dave Cote, a chairman and CEO who has successfully transformed and led the company for more than a decade. That strong, consistent leadership goes a long way. He picks the right strategies, motivates people to achieve them, and truly understands how the machinery works.

We also have a robust “One Honeywell” culture that allows us to do amazing things. We stay focused on great positions in good industries, and drive our “Five Initiatives” (Growth, Productivity, Cash, People, and our Enablers, which are critical business initiatives) and our “12 Behaviors” — one of which is leadership impact — to succeed globally in a competitive world.

Culture is a big part of our business model and really does make a difference. Our pay-for-performance culture creates differentiation — in our technologies, from our competitors, and among our employees — that drives growth.

Ours is a culture of adaptability. Everything around you is always evolving, and if you’re not evolving faster, you are falling behind. We strive to continually do two seemingly competing things well. We aim to achieve the flexibility of a small company along with the efficiency of strong common processes and deep technical expertise.

Opportunities to grow from within

Over the last six years, more than 85 percent of our top 700 management hires have come from within. We provide opportunities that span businesses, functions, and geographies. This helps drive One Honeywell.

Because we’re multi-industry and a big global company in more than 100 different countries, we are in a unique position to promote from within. We can shift talent between groups, giving our leaders more breadth, depth, and experience that can only be gained by working in different businesses and geographies.

There is little downside to this — we gain different viewpoints and insight, without losing our top talent. In addition, by hiring from within we are able to ensure a culture fit, which is always a risk when hiring externally.

Be a self-aware learner

As a leader, self-awareness and being a good learner go hand-in-hand. The more you know and understand about a wide variety of topics, the more effective you can be. I have found that the best ideas can come from outside your area of expertise.

In HR, I’ve lifted best practices from integrated supply chain, engineering, and general managers to improve our HR organization, as opposed to getting those ideas from other HR organizations. Having the ability to recognize something that works really well in a group not related to your team — spotting the pattern that makes it successful — and applying it to your area can be a tremendous competitive advantage.

That thinking should never stop.

Being a self-aware learner in HR means keeping an open mind and going to meetings that aren’t just HR meetings. If you ask questions about things outside your area, eventually you’re able to solve more problems for people because you’ve been able to broaden your knowledge. You need to stay in learner mode and help people solve the things that keep them awake at night, not the things that you think they should do.

The importance of self-awareness

Being self-aware means knowing what are you good at — and, conversely, what are you not good at. What tendencies do you have?

Once you know what your own strengths and weaknesses are, you need to figure out how to improve your weak areas and surround yourself with people who have offsetting strengths, while making sure that you give them the opportunity to weigh in on different decisions.

Compiled by Dave Ulrich, Bill Schiemann and Libby Sartain, and sponsored by the HR Certification Institute, The Rise of HR: Wisdom from 73 Thought Leaders is an anthology of essays addressing the critical issues facing business and talent professionals today. The full eBook can be downloaded @ Reprinted with permission of HRCI.

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