Organisational listening and innovation
How the need to appear confident and in charge can get in the way of innovation
Miriam Lahage, Co-founder COO of Aequip
As a former CEO confident that I embodied the perfect balance of emotional intelligence and innovative leadership, it never occurred to me that there could be unspoken issues that never arose in team conversations. How many times did we ask for feedback? How many ways did we offer opportunities to people to speak their minds? How many one to one meetings did I hold where I encouraged the individual to feel comfortable to speak openly? How could any CEO be as approachable and empathetic as I was?
And yet…working with a few individuals who are bold communicators and are comfortable voicing their concerns is not a replacement for everyone in the organisation feeling safe to speak up. Particularly for individuals who are new, or are unsure of their standing, or are reserved, speaking their truth to power is a scary thing. It isn’t worth the risk. The irony of your blind spot is that you are never the one to see it. I could be the leader that the bold communicator needed. Sadly, I failed to hear what wasn’t being said. In my confident demeanor I was a great leader for some, but not for everyone else.
Shining a light on my blind spots is painful. The vulnerability of the exercise of taking on board what is obvious to others but that you don’t see is humbling. I thought I had created an open culture, one where every individual could share their ideas and thrive. In reality, I could hear only the people who acted like me or communicated like me. I am not alone in that misconception. Almost 98% of leaders believe that great ideas come from everyone in the workforce1 Workplace, Deskless not Voiceless, page 6 And 90% of managers are confident that everyone is comfortable speaking up with a new idea.2Workplace, Deskless not Voiceless, page 6
In reality, 25% of employees report that they have had an idea to improve the business but have not told anyone. 3Workplace, Deskless not Voiceless, page 6 A further 38% of employees have suggested an innovation only to have it ignored. 4Workplace, Deskless not Voiceless, page 6 More than half of the workforce does not have a way to fully participate the way they might want to.
My professional experience aligns with most other supremely confident yet slightly misguided CEOs. I heard great ideas from certain individuals who had a propensity to speak up or were confident in their position in the company. The richness of the feedback, new ideas, innovation inspired me and we drove innovation thanks to those individuals. But that lulled me into the false assumption that everyone was speaking up, and that all the great ideas were being surfaced. Actually, we were missing the power of hearing all the voices, and getting all the innovative ideas out there. More than half of the workforce was either reluctant to share or thought no one was listening. How many great business ideas were never realised? That’s not just leaving money on the table, that is leaving staff on the outside of the rewarding, exciting process of striving together towards excellence.
I wish I could report that I had an epiphany, or that one of the reluctant individuals spoke up unprompted. In actuality, we collectively came to the realisation that our trading process needed to change if we were going to execute the business transformation required. Buying, Merchandising, Marketing, and Finance professionals worked hard to drive trade. Although we had been working to re-engineer the trading functions for a while, it took an outside observer, a friend of the company, watching the dynamics of the weekly meetings to recognise that things needed to change to get full-throated participation from everyone who could make a difference. The outside observer who helped take away the blind spot was similar in personality to the reluctant, more quiet individuals on the team. If she had not spoken up, we probably would not have recognised the changes that we needed or what was holding us back. I would still be hearing the voices that sounded the same as mine.
More than half the workforce does not speak up, even when asked.
The trading team worked for two days pulling apart the ways of working. They rethought their roles and their commitments to each other and to the larger team. The trading team redefined their function and agreed on their principles as a team. They introduced a new way of working, one where there was a shared responsibility to collaborate to identify any softness in trading and lean into sales opportunities as a team. They set an intention that rather than reporting back to the team on successes and the current KPIs in their functional areas, they would explore the uncertainties of the business together and then challenge each other to optimise the business, regardless of function or title.
The change did not happen overnight, and it continued to be hard work, but they made a breakthrough transformation happen. Once everyone on the trading team had a voice, and could operate from a place of safety, the dynamic of the group shifted to good effect. The business continued to be challenging but trade was being driven by the team with complementary ideas and approaches. Trade started to improve, even with exogenous market forces being difficult. Most importantly, we were building a muscle for innovation that energised the trading team and helped them create more value together than ever before.
It was in my journey from big corporate retail to the startup world that I started to understand the concept of psychological safety, what Amy C. Edmondson has defined as “an environment in which people believe that they can speak up candidly with ideas, questions, concerns, and even mistakes.”5Amy C. Edmondson, “The Role of Psychological Safety in Diversity and Inclusion,” Psychology Today, (June 2020)
The further I explored psychological safety, the elegance and simplicity of the concept resonated with me. Make the work team environment safe for individuals to speak up, to acknowledge mistakes, to approach challenging situations with curiosity, the more likely you can create a high performing team ready to innovate. Driving productivity and agility through organisational listening is at the heart of Aequip.
In my decades long career I have learned from many leaders, many incredible, some not so great. One not so great leader admonished me for acknowledging a mistake I had made. “Never admit a mistake, it makes you look weak” was his ill-conceived advice for me. I would have to disagree with him. Setting an example that it is safe to be always learning is one of the most important elements of creating an environment of organisational listening where true innovation can happen. I am now glad that I got that ill-conceived advice. It helped me to get past a blind spot. And it helped me to see why what we are doing at Aequip is more than a business, it is a mission.
Miriam Lahage has more than 30 years of leadership experience at global companies such as TJX, eBay and Net-a-Porter. Miriam was most recently CEO of Figleaves, where she led a product, digital, and organisational transformation. She is Co-founder and COO of Aequip.