A few days ago, I was talking with the CEO of a large company in New England with almost 15,000 employees. A couple of years ago, he had started an idea system, and although things were progressing well, he felt that some members of his leadership team and a significant percentage of his managers weren’t yet on board with the system, and were only paying lip service to it.
He had been gradually trying to hold them more accountable, among other things by incorporating the number of ideas per person into their evaluations. We were talking about an important institution-wide management meeting and how he could light a fire under those managers who were not pushing the idea system in their areas.
“You need to reframe your outlook on their idea performance to them”, I said. “The idea system is not another item to put in their list of “to-do”, their idea performance – that is, how well their people do at coming up with ideas – is the primary way for you to know if they are good managers or not. Frame it that way, and it may get their attention.”
It is one thing to hold people accountable for ideas – “your people must average at least 15 implemented ideas per person per year”, or the like – it is quite another to equate their idea performance with their effectiveness as managers or leaders. But a lot of organizations do this, and for good reason: They are the same.
In their wonderful book, The Witch Doctors (a skewering of most of the management gurus of the late 20th century), John Mickelthwait and Adrian Wooldrige, then the two business editors of The Economist wrote that “The greatest source of competitive advantage is not really cost or quality, but creativity.”
Don Wainwright, CEO of Wainwright Industries, one of the early winners of the United States’ Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, put it in less academic terms to us: “The number of implemented ideas a manager gets today, is the best leading indicator I know of the future performance of his or her unit.”
These two statements are different ways of saying the same thing. If an organization gains competitive advantage today, it won’t show up in results immediately, it will show up after a decent interval when it plays out, as the market finds out about it, or the improved performance is reflected in the next quarter’s results.
So now back to the question. What exactly are we looking for in our managers. What separates the good ones from the less effective ones? The answer is that good managers create more competitive advantage for you. And competitive advantage comes from ideas, so why not watch your managers idea performance closely.
Another note: A manager’s idea performance is a good indicator of how well she is respected and liked by his or her people. Ideas are voluntary. A poor manager, who is not inspiring and is not driving improvement, won’t get a lot of ideas from his or her people. But if a manager is motivating her people well and inspiring them to new heights, they will get a lot of ideas from their people.
So while it may sound a little simplistic to equate management of ideas with overall managerial ability and potential, it has a lot of truth to it, and is an easy message to communicate.