08 Jul 2020 19:29 IST

Commitment to the everyday journey

A deep sense of ownership creates passion in the workplace, powers one to make the business succeed

Oyo recently created ripples with the announcement that it was giving all its staff deeply discounted ESOPs. This could see a future where all employees become owners. It is a laudable step and will surely help employees financially and give them a sense of sharing in the outcomes of their work. But it also poses an interesting question – does it take ESOPs to create a sense of ownership? What do organisations need to do to create owner-leaders? Let’s explore some themes.

It’s an inside job

Shivakumar Ganesan, the CEO of Exotel, takes a different view: “I am increasingly beginning to see that things like co-founder status, the amount of equity the person has, the salary…I do not think there is a strong correlation to the passion (with) which people work. I think the right way to build passion is to think of it from the impact standpoint, creativity standpoint, pride or work happiness standpoint. Those are the things I focus on and believe in. Cash and equity can impact negatively, but just because it is there, ownership does not happen automatically.” (The Economic Times, Aug 8, 2018) Words of wisdom, from one so young. He suggests that ownership has little to do with external factors and that it is more an inside job — something that has to come from within you.

My friend and Co-Founder, Pradeep, and I have been blessed to serve a leadership team with this ‘internal engine’. Recently we had to announce a pay cut across the board. The leadership team was unfazed, and their efforts have only doubled. They work from an internal passion to make a difference and pay isn’t the motivating driver. This kind of leadership is rare and valuable. In fact, at hiring interviews this is the single most important quality we look for — someone who has an internal engine. This is not to say that external factors like pay, promotions, appreciation, don’t matter. They do. It’s just that, for such leaders, their everyday motivation comes from the inside, driven by their values and convictions.

For itself

Writing in The Hindu, Keshava Guha in a thought-provoking article titled “Are you #WengerIn or #WengerOut?” (July 7, 2018) allows us a peek into the philosophy of one of football’s greatest managers, Arsene Wenger. He writes: “It is easy to establish three distinct and often competing visions. One sees football as a business, a form of entertainment like movies or pop music, and aims only to expand the market and maximise profit. Another is motivated primarily by a competitive urge: a football club exists only to win football matches. A third ideal is romantic and often aesthetic: football is a source of beauty and joy.” While Wenger did take care of the business and competitive parts, his heart was clearly in the art and beauty of football. As Wenger defined himself in an interview: “I see myself as a facilitator of what is beautiful in man.”

This is what led a Steve Jobs to worry about how well the inside of an iMac is crafted. No customer sees it, but Jobs wanted it to be a work of beauty for the sake of beauty itself. One may think of this as somewhat idealistic and impractical. After all, why obsess about a part that a customer will never see or interact with. But this is what creates a culture in the team, powers the drive in the workplace, imbues passion for the business, and converts everyday work almost into art. As artist Zaria Forman said: When you really care about what you are doing and it really matters on a personal level, it comes through (in) the quality of the work.”

Leaders like this are not driven by a job description. They don’t need constant chasing and follow-up. They don’t need a boss breathing down their neck. They find meaning in the work itself and a high standard of excellence is something they demand of themselves.

It is important for us, therefore, to choose our careers and jobs wisely – is this something I will care about in the long term or will it just be a set of tasks and projects that I will do to earn a living?

The journey is the destination

The business world is especially obsessed with results. Business leaders care most about the outcomes. I remember often telling team members, “Thanks for the great efforts but tell me what was delivered. What are the results?” Great businesses are, however, built not just on an obsession with results but on a commitment to the everyday journey.

Kieran Setiya, Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT writes about the difference in the two kinds of activities we undertake. (Harvard Business Review, Mar-Apr 2019) “Projects are telic activities, in that they aim at terminal states, not yet achieved. (The term comes from the Greek word telos meaning 'end' or 'goal') These activities aim at their own annihilation. You’re preparing that client pitch and then presenting it; negotiating that deal and then closing it; planning the conference and then hosting it. Reaching the goal brings a moment of satisfaction, but after that, it’s on to the next project. Other activities are atelic, without a built-in end. Think of the difference between walking home and going for a stroll, or between putting the kids to bed and parenting. When you engage in atelic activities, you do not exhaust them. Nor do they evoke the emptiness of projects, for which fulfilment is always in the future or the past. Atelic activities are fully realised in the present.”

How much of our work is telic vs atelic? Can we engage with a client without always having the agenda of a deal to close? Can we engage with colleagues without looking for ways to take advantage? Can we converse with the boss without a self-promotion goal?

Building leadership muscle

When we make the journey meaningful, then our jobs and careers stop becoming just hops from project to project, P&L to P&L, promotion to promotion. As Manish Sabharwal, my friend and former boss would say – “Life should never become a continuous elongation of a straight line.” That is likely when we are so obsessed with outcomes that each phase of our job and career becomes the goal-hunt. We exhaust ourselves in its pursuit, briefly celebrate, and are on to the next. Such a life will end up being draining, rather than fulfilling. We become slaves of the corporate treadmill — running very fast, but staying pretty much in the same place. Instead, when we see the journey itself as the gymnasium to build our leadership muscle it makes the difference between stagnation and growth.

Jim Collins’ three circles framework is a useful tool. Can I identify where my proficiency circle, my passion circle, and my purpose circle intersect? That is what creates the ‘sweet zone’ — where I’m most likely to enjoy not just success but meaning and fulfilment. Can I truly embrace the three themes above? That could make all the difference to my leadership — the experience and the impact.

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