Energizing the Organization

From Hesselbein and Company

By Rajeev PeshawariaWinter 2012 | Print

Leadership is all about harnessing energy—your own energy, and the energy of those in your organization.

True leaders, those who have incredible clarity of vision and purpose—people like Howard Schultz of Starbucks and Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen Fund—rely on massive amounts of energy, harnessed on three levels:

• Individual: Leaders must find the source of their personal energy in order to persevere despite obstacles and setbacks.

• Team: Leaders must harness the energy of team members toward a shared vision.

• Organization: Leaders must galvanize the energy of the entire organization to sustain long-term success.

Finding your own personal source of energy is the foundation for true leadership. Once you clarify your purpose and the values you will use to achieve it, you’re on the way toward creating a better future.

But energizing yourself isn’t enough—you have to align the energy of others in your organization toward a shared purpose. Think about them on two levels— teams and the organization at large. Energizing teams is about turning individual employees into co-leaders. Energizing the organization is about facilitating their success by shaping three high-level business levers. Let’s take a look at each tier.

Team Leadership

Being a leader means energizing and motivating your team of direct reports to perform at a higher level. Organizations spend immense amounts of money on training techniques and programs, but despite it all, most managers still struggle when it comes to motivating employees. They try different incentive plans, methods, and best practices, and still find themselves asking, “What more can I do?”

As it turns out, that’s the problem. Asking yourself what you can do to motivate your team is pointless, because however hard you try, you cannot motivate anyone.

When trying to energize others in the organization, team leaders must understand that people are motivated by their own unique self-interest. Unless your actions directly address an employee’s unique motivation triggers, any motivational initiatives you attempt are likely to fail. So instead of implementing across-theboard strategies in the name of best practice, take a step back, find out what your employees expect from their jobs, and try your best to address their needs. This is the best way to release their energy and align it to your shared purpose.

Of course, when you manage a team, keeping track of so many individual needs is a large task. Where should you start? I have used a simple two-step approach in my own work:

1. Find out what they want.

2. Address their needs in the normal course of daily work.

Step 1: Find out what they want.

Every employee has three “buckets” of expectations in the workplace:

• What is my role?

• What is my work environment like?

• How will I develop my skills and my career?

While each employee’s needs are different, all employees have needs in these three buckets. To some, one bucket may be more important than others, but all have questions in each bucket.

Role: In this bucket, employees want to know about the nature of their work and how it fits in with their personal purpose. The role must provide adequate challenge, fit meaningfully within the big picture, provide adequate freedom to do the job well, and align with personal purpose and values. Meaningful work they can relate to on an emotional level is important to most high-performers, and to members of Generation Y in particular.

Environment: This bucket includes how it feels to be part of your team, and whether the work environment is in accordance with employees’ personal values. An employee who regards meritocracy as important will not thrive in an environment that believes in giving equal bonuses to all. One who regards autonomy as important will not excel in a regimented environment.

Development: Finally, growing one’s skills and career are important to most. While choosing between jobs, candidates often opt for the one that offers better prospects in terms of learning and development. Managers who have a reputation for investing time in developing their people tend to have an easier time attracting the best talent.

Managers can use the acronym these three buckets form—RED —as a framework for conversations with employees. The goal is to learn as much as you possibly can about each employee’s preferences in each bucket, and the only way to do that is to ask questions. Start using every opportunity during the course of a normal day or week to ask questions around role, environment, and development.

Whenever I’m with an employee, whether in a oneto- one update meeting or in a cab to see a client, I ask questions like these:

• So how do you think we are doing overall? Do you think we are focused on the right things in order to have maximum impact? (Role)

• How are you feeling? How are others feeling? Are people having fun? (Environment)

• I know you’re busy, but what are you doing to invest in yourself? Where do you see yourself in five or ten years? What are you doing to build toward that destination? (Development)

These don’t have to be long conversations—10 minutes or less is often all you need.

Step 2: Address their needs.

Once you understand your employees’ needs, you can begin to address them in the course of daily work.

The key is to label and link—when assigning work, discuss why it might be good for the individuals who do it. Whether it will help them succeed at their goals (Role), stretch them and give them new experiences (Development), or give them a chance to collaborate (Environment), tell them. Don’t expect them to put two and two together—label it, link it, and spell out why this is a good opportunity. Don’t leave it to chance when another minute of conversation can ensure you are on the same page.

Bottom line: if you’re trying to motivate employees without knowing what they want, you’re operating in a vacuum. So stop trying—and start asking.

Enterprise Leadership

Once you’ve created teams of co-leaders whose collective energy is aligned, it’s time to turn to the overall organization. But when you’re leading from the top, deciding where to spend your time can be immensely challenging. Whether you’re the CEO of a company with hundreds of thousands of employees or a functional leader within a company with only a hundred people under you, the challenge is the same: How can you be most effective?

When you’re an enterprise leader—one with so many people to command that it’s not possible to have a close one-to-one relationship with everyone—the rules are different from the time-tested rules that earned you all your individual success and promotions. When you’re leading large numbers of people, your primary job is no longer to produce results—it’s to facilitate the success of others. So what, then, should you focus on personally?


Your full-time job now should be to create conditions in which your people can do their work successfully. You need to put in place a few important frameworks within which a large number of people can operate in a way that maximizes their energy.

The key is to control and shape the three most important levers of sustainable business growth—the brains, the bones, and the nerves.

• The brains of a business are its vision and strategy, and here the enterprise leader must shape and set direction.

• The bones are the organizational architecture, and here the enterprise leader must design the organization so it can execute the strategy.

• The nerves are the culture and climate of the organization, and here the enterprise leader must foster a culture of long-lasting excellence.

Just as the human body needs all three systems—the brains, bones, and nerves—functioning in perfect harmony to maximize longevity and performance, a business needs its strategy, architecture, and culture to work in harmony to maximize results. As an enterprise leader, you should focus on these three as your most important focus areas; everything else must be delegated.

Here are a few simple but powerful ideas about how to lead a large workforce by shaping and managing the brains, bones, and nerves of your organization.

Wiring the Brains

For an organization to reach a desired destination, the first step is to decide what route to take. In other words, the organization must clearly articulate its objectives and make choices about how it will go about achieving them.

This sounds obvious, but in my years of coaching senior executives, I have found that the smartest people tend to overlook or underperform at this primary work of leadership. The ones that create the most efficient and effective brains of a business do so by focusing on two elements:

• A compelling vision and strategy articulated with elegant simplicity

• The ability to achieve acceptance and understanding of the vision and strategy

The task of setting a compelling vision and strategy boils down to answering four questions:

1. What do we want to be?

2. Who are our stakeholders?

• What do we want to do for each?

3. How will we get there?

• What is the conventional business model?

• What needs does this model fulfill?

• What needs are yet unfulfilled?

• What new needs are likely to emerge in the future?

• What should we do differently compared to the traditional model?

4. Why will we succeed?

• What will our differentiating capabilities be? This template requires you to state your objective (the what), list your stakeholders (the who), and explain how you will surpass the competition, or create something that does not exist (how and why).

Once you’ve established the vision and strategy, you must fulfill the second element of wiring the brains— achieving acceptance and understanding throughout the organization. The key is packaging—you should be able to articulate the vision and strategy in 15 minutes or less, and on no more than one or two pages.

Building Strong Bones

Once vision and strategy have been established, it’s time to create an organizational framework that enables top-quality execution of that strategy and long-term excellence. This framework has two aspects—bones and nerves. The term bones refers to the organizational design of the company, which should deploy resources in ways that best support the strategy. This is the formal organizational structure and the division of work among individuals and groups. Likewise, nerves refers to the informal setup, the culture of the organization. Bones create a structure for executing a strategy, and nerves create a culture that enables long-term excellence.

To build strong bones, leaders must

• Create an organizational structure that enables flawless execution of strategy

• Ensure each job is filled by the right person

• Create supporting systems and processes that drive performance

First, look at your overall business strategy, look at where your resources are currently allocated, make a few assumptions, and design an organization based on what is important. For example, if the lifeblood of the business is R&D, the question leaders must ask is, “Are we providing enough resources to research and development? If not, where can we reduce resources to fund this area?”

Next, you must fill jobs with the best available talent. To get this right:

Define performance expectations for each job. Clarity around expected outcomes will highlight the skills and experience required for each job, improving your chances of finding the right person.

Hire for desired performance outcomes. Instead of focusing on generic personality traits, look for evidence that suggests a person might have the skill and will to achieve the particular desired outcomes.

Be prepared to admit mistakes and rectify them. No matter how careful you are, hiring mistakes will happen. Once it becomes clear that a person you hired is a misfit for a particular role, you need to act quickly.

Once you design the structure and fill the jobs, it’s time to set up systems and processes to encourage desired behavior. Two important systems to think about here are the performance-management and promotion systems.

Performance Management

It is said that what gets measured gets done. But most important, individual performance should be defined on two levels: commercial goals and values. At the commercial goals level, a manager and employee agree on what needs to be achieved during a performance period. At the values level, they agree on how it will be achieved.

During my time at American Express, performance was measured both against business goals and against leadership behaviors. My bonus depended equally on business goals and leadership performance, which made it abundantly clear that the company was serious about leadership behavior.


Almost everyone working for a large organization wants to be promoted at regular intervals. And when they are up for promotion, employees are receptive to feedback. This is an excellent time to reinforce the desired values. If designed in the manner described here, the bones will support overall vision and strategy in the best possible way. While getting this right is a matter of trial and error, keeping the basic principles of sound organization design—having the right people in key jobs, designing and maintaining a nimble and efficient organization structure, and establishing supporting systems like performance measurement—is helpful.

Developing Cultural Nerves

Over years of consulting and talent-management work, I have found that if managed proactively and effectively, culture can be a huge source of competitive advantage. For business leaders, here is a simple and useful definition: Culture is what your people do when no one is looking.

This is key, because as organizations grow in size and complexity, it’s impossible to monitor day-to-day individual performance. So leaders need a mechanism that ensures that people do the right thing every day, even when no one is looking. At the end of the day, you have to clarify performance expectations, create conditions that enable success, and trust that people will behave in a way that best supports overall strategy. This is where culture comes in.

So how do you go about creating the culture you want?


Enterprise leaders must articulate a set of behavior guidelines for everyone to follow.

For a moment, imagine it’s two years after you set the company’s vision and strategy. In that time, the new strategic direction was executed flawlessly and the organization has successfully met its objectives. What behaviors made this success possible? Then imagine the reverse—failure. What behaviors led you off course? This will help you and your team finalize a short list of behavior guidelines you think are critical to the mission. Most important, every single member of senior leadership must buy into these behavior guidelines. Halfhearted attempts will go nowhere–you must be personally energized about behaving according to the guidelines.


The next step is to socialize the behavior guidelines. Leaders need to take every opportunity to communicate the guidelines and make people understand why they are important.

Effective socialization happens in three primary ways. The most powerful is through actions rather than words. Very early in my career, when I was a frontline employee at American Express Bank, I was working late one evening after most people on my floor had gone home. A phone was ringing repeatedly a few desks away, but since it was after hours, I ignored it. A minute or so later, Jim Vaughn, the country CEO (who also happened to be working late), was on his way out of the building when he heard the same phone ring again. I will never forget when he walked up to the phone and asked the caller what he could do to help. Without telling the caller that he was the CEO, Jim took down a detailed message and assured the caller that it would be communicated to the intended recipient as soon as possible. Before hanging up, he thanked the caller for calling American Express. For me, a twenty-two-year-old employee, it was a lifelong lesson about customer service. Leaders should use every opportunity to exhibit desired guidelines or values through their own behavior.

The second way to socialize the desired culture is through training. At American Express, every employee had to attend training to fully understand the essence of the American Express brand, and how to live the blue-box values every day.

The third way to socialize is through ongoing communication. A basic rule of communication is that you can never do too much of it. The only way to ensure that a message has been absorbed consistently is to communicate it repeatedly using different methods (speeches, presentations, e-mails, videos, intranet tutorials). Use every means possible, and do it as often as possible.


The final step toward changing or creating a culture is to reinforce the desired behavior guidelines or values. Ultimately, if you want to make sure people behave according to stated guidelines and live the values, you must answer the “what’s-in-it-for-me” question. The three most important levers at a leader’s disposal here are performance management, compensation, and promotion. By energizing individuals with the RED framework and then continuously managing the brains, bones, and nerves of the company, leaders will build a strong organization that will sustain high performance over the years. From time to time, you’ll need to step back and assess how you’re doing on these two levels—so talk to your employees. Strong leaders keep the lines of dialogue open—just as they are consistently communicating with employees about a vision for the company, they are also constantly asking for feedback and are not afraid of uncovering areas that need improvement. If your conversations suggest a need for action, invite your team to own solutions.

Rajeev Peshawaria is CEO of the ICLIF Leadership & Governance Centre based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is the author of “Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders: The Three Essential Principles You Need to Be an Extraordinary Leader.” His website is

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