What happens when the hungry become full

Published: Friday, August 12, 2016


Words by Gavin Freeman

How many times have we discussed the underdog and the hunger they show when taking on the big dogs? Whether it is your local footy team or a new business trying to take on a bigger competitor, as onlookers we revel behind the idea of David beating Goliath.

The members of the team focus on the opportunity, block out the distractions around them and become very motivated to succeed. Due to their underdog status, failure is not a consideration as it is an expectation. This allows the individuals to remove the fear of failure and focus on the ‘art of the possible’.

On the other side we counsel the top team to not be lazy or take their eye off the ball and we encourage them to maintain the same level of intensity they would provide when competing against any other team closer on the rankings.

As leaders, our focus is on removing the distractions, ensuring all members are on the same page and that we don’t want to lose to a lesser competitor. The worst case scenario is explaining to the board or the Monday papers ‘why’ you failed.

Two very different mindsets, yet both playing on the same field.

We have all seen this story before and we often can predict the outcome – but do we learn from it? How do we ensure we remain focused, hungry even, when full? This is where strategic leadership comes into play.

Why do the hungry display certain characteristics which once full suddenly dissipate? How can we create an environment where the hunger is maintained, re-defined and embedded as part of the culture?

Is there a single solution? The short answer is no but there are five key learnings identified through interviews with Australia’s corporate elite in my new book Just Stop Motivating Me.

1.     People will self-motivate if they believe in the message

Giam Swiegers, CEO of Aurecon, articulated beautifully as he steered his previous company Deloitte through a tough patch: Once we had them on board, we just needed to make the case for ‘why’ it is possible. Part of that was why we were different and why we chose to enter into sections of the market where others chose not to.

He recognised very early on it would be too hard to try and motivate individuals, his role was to provide a transparent inspirational message and allow the teams to self-motivate. The downside to this, as eloquently articulated by Gordon Lefevre, CFO of AMP – people will smell bullshit a mile away. So don’t use spin to cloud the reality of the situation. Trust your people.

2.     Emotive language when used can often be misinterpreted – so beware

Under pressure we alter the way we communicate and often use language that later on, through reflection, we wished we hadn’t. It is also important to note that much of our communication comes through non-verbal sources.

Consider the impact of Donald Trump’s raised finger when he is trying to make a point – many American comedians now have enough fodder to last them the next year or so.

Greg Braddy, CFO of NAB Business, spends an extra 5 minutes in the parking lot prior to heading into the office for the simple reason of ensuring he is in the best possible mindset to support his team. The final tip to ensure you have considered the various interpretations that could be applied to your commentary.

3.     Help organisation redefine the hunger pains – keep them close to the edge

We all know the feeling of being hungry, but I bet you didn’t know that the nerve which informs us that we are full is actually on a 20-minute delay function. It’s a remnant of the days in which our next meal was not guaranteed to be delivered between 9am-2pm from your favourite retailer.

Likewise, in business we know when we are in trouble, but once we have achieved success it takes a little while to sink in and then before we know it, we are assuming the success will be ongoing and delivered within the expected time frame. We sometimes also don’t perceive the “drop off” until its too late.

Rather than a potential yo-yo situation forming, it would be prudent to ensure your team is continually assessing the situation and reassessing where appropriate.

Aurecon’s Giam Swiegers found incredible success after he removed the business plan concept and introduced a business argument idea – his thinking was his executives would have to continually provide a relevant and valid argument for the path they were on. It also allowed for a redistribution of intellectual capital when needed.

4.     Honesty and humility will always rein over spin and innuendo

Every leadership book I ever read talked about leaders being open, transparent and goal-orientated. They sometimes refer to the development of trust, but I am not sure anyone has ever truly defined trust – it is such a specific emotion, defined so differently by everyone that I worry it has become a word which is simply thrown around, and left to our devices to interpret and create.

I would argue we need to add to the trust debate by considering the 2 H’s: honesty and humility. Honesty refers to the deep emotion and being true to yourself, and creating a sense of fairness within your environment. People recognise we aren’t always equal in actions but we can always be fair.

The second H, humility, is a tough one. It refers to the ability to share a part of oneself in order to allow people to both understand and connect with your value system. Being humble allows people to understand why you do what you do and, more importantly, why anyone should be led by you.   

5.     Define your playing field – and use your intellectual capital effectively

The final point refers to environment and the team you have playing – having recently supported a large change program in which a couple of dozen people were made redundant, we instigated an organisational design which was based on the needs of the business, defined the roles as to the level of accountability they required, and provided the appropriate authority to match their level of accountability.

But most importantly, we assessed each applicant to ensure they were operating at the correct level for the role. The outcome was the right people with the right skills and the right mindset were assigned to the right roles.

Ben Lawrence, chief human resource officer at Wesfarmers, had a simple and elegant interpretation of this approach and shared how Wesfarmers have for years implemented a “Yes” policy. What he meant was they give their leaders permission to say yes and the tools to enable it. They also expect their leaders to live up to their promises – so it goes both ways.  

Gavin Freeman (M.Psych, MBA) is the author of 'Just Stop Motivating Me', a psychologist and keynote presenter. Gavin has more than 18 years’ experience in working with high performing individuals and teams, from Olympians to CEOs. 

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