For the engineering manager, the workplace in the 21st century is a whole world away from how it used to be. Author Gareth Jones’ new book explains what we need to do to keep in step with the way we work today.
“There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that talented people are increasingly not attracted to large organisations.” That, says Gareth Jones, is a “potentially huge issue.” Jones, along with co-author Rob Goffee, has just published a leadership book called ‘Why Should Anyone Work Here?’ The title is at first sight self-explanatory, but it points to deeper issues affecting corporate management. These need to be addressed, because not only does the world of work look different from the way it did a generation ago, but the next generation who are looking at it don’t find it particularly attractive any more.
Jones says that this is a relatively new phenomenon. “If you look back twenty years, big engineering companies had queues of people waiting to join them.” The reason for this, he says, is that once you became enlisted in the ranks what awaited you was a stable career, full of interesting work with personal development. But that promise “turned out not to be true. Today there is a real problem centred on how you go about designing an organisation that will be attractive to talented people.” He adds that talented people have a tendency to vote with their feet and will walk away from monolithic structures if it is in their interest to do so.
By his own admission, Jones, who is now a full time academic after a career in the BBC, “would find it hard to return to corporate life. This is because corporations find it hard to produce an environment where people can express themselves.”
Jones and Goffee are not new to addressing uncomfortable management problems. Their previous outing was a book entitled ‘Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?’ It’s quite a startling title for a book, because we all instinctively know why we’ve been promoted to management positions: we either obtained qualifications in the art or we were parachuted into ‘accidental’ positions because we were popular, dynamic and good at our previous (and often unrelated) job. But for a new generation in the technology space these reasons - while they might satisfy management - are not enough to keep them engaged. What the foot soldiers want, say the authors, are captains who are authentic. But this is not enough either: Jones calls it “a necessary but insufficient condition”. Those wanting authentic leaders also wanted a work environment that was similarly authentic.
While ‘authenticity’ might sound like one of those handy little pegs publishers come up with to hang a book on, there is more to it than that. Authenticity is a condition where people are entrusted to be more themselves. That’s what all the American management books have always said. But for Jones this misses part of the point, because you need to “be yourself with skill”.
By being yourself but with the requirement to be good at what you do too, says Jones, you will be more creative, more productive and more innovative. Even the most entrenched and dyed-in-the-wool manager can’t fail to have missed that the word ‘more’ appears three times in the previous sentence. And even if they find 21st-century management-speak a bit, well, touchy-feely, the word ‘more’ is a blunt instrument that will be closely associated with the lines on the profitability chart pointing upwards. And so it is important.
But as always with management books there is that nagging question of how we attain the utopian vision described by the authors. We will probably respect the words of highly respected academics in the business leadership world, with years of top-level field experience between them. But engineering managers will want to know more than simply what they need to do and why they need to do it. They will want to know how. This is where ‘Why Should Anyone Work Here?’ scores highly over so many other books addressing similar themes.
In a book that is unashamedly about the positive possibilities that exist for the development in leadership and the work environment, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the mnemonic the authors furnish us with is cheesy to say the least. But at least ‘DREAMS’ is easy to remember, and it does follow the salient points necessary for the pursuit of a purpose. It’s worth reproducing in its entirety, because not only does it form the core of the book, but it is also the core of the authors’ research.
- Difference. “I want to work in a place where I can be myself, where I can express the ways in which I’m different and how I see things differently.”
- Radical honesty. “I want to know what’s really going on.”
- Extra value. “I want to work in an organisation that magnifies my strengths and adds extra value for me and my personal development.”
- Authenticity. “I want to work in an organisation I’m proud of, one that truly stands for something.”
- Meaning. “I want my day-to-day work to be meaningful.”
- Simple rules. “I do not want to be hindered by stupid rules or rules that apply to some people but not others.”
And there you have it in a nutshell: the key to creating an authentic organisation. But that is not where the story ends, because Jones, for all his analysis of the world of work, has yet to encounter a single organisation that scores well on every one of the six points.
“We’ve been studying creativity in the workplace for some time now,” he says, but adds that, despite the efforts of the academic world, “we don’t really know all that much about it, by the way.” What we know for certain, he points out, is that creativity is rarely individual. “Creativity is nearly always collective. If we look at the great engineering breakthroughs, they are hardly ever the product of one mind. We bounce ideas off each other and somewhere in the process we take the germ of an idea and turn it into something practical.”
In a “hyper-competitive capitalist environment”, Jones says, all organisations are necessarily driven towards being more creative, and the imperative to come up with new ways of doing things will require higher levels of creativity. One of the ways to do this is to make your company a place where the best people want to work. The key to that, says Jones, is to be more authentic.