Why Companies Are Leaking Potential, And What You Can Do About It

Why Companies Are Leaking Potential, And What You Can Do About It
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By: Rachel Cooke

Competition in business today is fierce. Customers have limitless choices, means of instant price comparing, and of course the Interwebs via which they can crucify a brand in 140 characters. The bar is high. Business-as-usual is not a strategy. Excellence is the new table stakes.

In order to compete, many organizations have armed themselves for the War for Talent. According to research by Bersin by Deloitte, between 2013 and 2014, organizational spend on talent acquisition rose 7% to nearly $4,000 per hire; and corporate spend on training grew by 15% to over $70 Billion in the United States. And all of this combined with the costs of salary and benefits add up quickly.

In other words, companies are investing in acquiring and growing skills. But are they maximizing their ROI on these skills? Are employees actually able, equipped, and empowered to deliver the goods they’ve promised? In many cases, they are not.

Employees today, across industries and levels, are frustrated by the myriad obstacles inhibiting their ability to do great work. These are employees that are armed with the skill, the energy, and the enthusiasm to bring ideas to the surface, and implement them.

Most companies are well intentioned, but are getting in their own way. We are inhibiting our own excellence. And while some of these obstructions are complex or highly-tentacled in nature, many are easy to fix. So why don’t we?

The answer is simple. Leaders don’t know they are there. Leaders are neither observing nor asking the essential questions that would inform a plan to remedy these obstacles, and in turn, our heroic teams expend their excellence working around or within these obstacles. And complacency and frustration set in.

How many great ideas and opportunities to streamline have organizations left on the table? And more importantly, what can organizational leadership do to turn this ship around?

The answers – the solutions – lay in leaders embracing, and striving to embody, the following 6 core drivers that fuel thriving organizations.

Driver 1: We are aligned.

Most enterprise leadership teams can articulate the shiny vision and mission. But the value of said vision is not its sparkle on the page, but rather its influence on the actual work that teams are doing each day. Leaders must have a finger on the pulse of how teams at every level are spending time, asking themselves:

  • Can we draw a straight through line connecting each team’s work with this enterprise vision?
  • Do our employees have permission to say no to something that doesn’t clearly align to our vision and priorities?
  • Do our teams suffer from overwork and frequent firedrills?

Driver 2: We are empowered.

Aligned on a vision, are our teams and employees actually able to get the work done? Or are we standing in our own way? Leaders must ensure the ability to deliver is real, asking themselves:

  • Do our teams have the tools and access required to get the work done?
  • Have we provided the context and support to enable them to make smart decisions in getting the work done?
  • Do they have permission to make and implement these decisions?

Driver 3: We are in touch.

Most organizations are well versed in memos and roadshows – all delivery mechanisms for top-down, static information. But the magic is in the dynamic –the real dialog. This is where learning, inquisition, and testing of ideas happen. Silos are the enemy. And leaders should ask:

  • Do teams and functions have an enterprise-view of all of the work happening across the organization… and how the pieces fit together?
  • Do we have forums for posing questions and ideas, and receiving response and feedback without fear of retribution or judgment?
  • Do we leverage collaboration, or build walls?

Driver 4: We are in motion.

While efficiency and inertia should be our friends, often they are our third-cousin twice removed. Complacency and the sense of “this is how we’ve always done it” unwittingly inhibit our ability to proceed, to implement what we’ve agreed. And here leaders must ask:

  • Are all of our key business processes as simple, minimal, and constructed with the fewest number of steps and approvals possible?
  • Are people spending time managing internal politics, producing “dog and pony shows” rather than generating new ideas and means of delighting our customers?

Driver 5: We are evolving.

This is where growth, development and innovation live. This is where we dream big, test, learn, fail, and find the unique insights that will fuel our future success. And leaders must ask themselves:

  • Do we create time and space for just thinking, networking and debating?
  • Do we honestly strive to learn from failure, or is that just lip service?
  • Do we acknowledge and support innovation – big and small, process and product, iterative and disruptive?

Driver 6: We are truly OK.

Diversity scorecards aren’t working. Real diversity is about knowing it’s OK to be who we are, and bring our whole selves and ideas to the table. In this age of mobile and digital, it is no longer the 30-year veterans that have all the answers. And ensuring that every person across the organization feels safe is a critical enabler for unlocking the ideas we need to truly excel. Leaders must be asking:

  • Do we hear regularly from people at every level of our organization – truly?
  • Do we look around and see a legitimate representation of our customer base reflected in the makeup of our internal teams?
  • Do we hear dumb ideas and questions every day – and if so, how effectively do we embrace and learn from them?

The time is now for organizations to start rethinking the investment strategy in talent. Getting the skills is essential. Growing them is wonderful. But unleashing them – getting out of our own way – is the imperative of the day. This is where the true ROI comes alive.


Rachel Cooke is the founder of Lead Above Noise, a consultancy dedicated to making work work better. Rachel believes that that great organizations are grounded in great leadership, and her passion is to partner with leaders who believe the same and are seeking simple (but not easy!) strategies for evolving their work, and in turn, their ability to deliver delight. For more, please visit www.LeadAboveNoise.com where you can connect with Rachel and sign up for her email newsletter.

Ellevate Network is a global women’s network: the essential resource for professional women who create, inspire and lead. Together, we #InvestInWomen.

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