It’s nearly 20 years since Enron declared bankruptcy, wiping out over $74 billion of shareholder value.
The shareholders who lost their money were not the executives who cashed out months before the fall but the employees and public service workers; teachers, firefighters, nurses; anyone who had their pensions or savings invested in Enron stock.
The company hid their debt and continued to inflate the stock price superficially until the illusion burst. Naturally, this ethos of making money at all costs seeped down through the organisation.
One way they cultivated a culture of greed was via the legendary Performance Review Committee (PRC.) This was the brainchild of self-designated genius and CEO Jeffrey Skilling, later convicted of insider trading and fraud.
The PRC occurred every six months; all employees were subject to a rating of 1-5 and rewarded, ignored or fired based on an executive committee’s perception of their value.
Given the committee was made of the same kinds of executives who dumped their stock while encouraging staff to take their wages in shares, you can imagine what behaviours appealed to them.
And an executive committee headed by a fraudster.
If the world lauded ‘America’s Most Innovative Company’ in 1999, just two years before it all burst, isn’t there a chance at any given time that big business isn’t the place to look for leadership role models?
Back to the story for a moment.
Those rated 1-2 would receive bonuses and promotions. Enron would fire those at the bottom, receiving a five, and this was a designated 15% of the workforce. That’s a shitty day, every six months for 15% of employees.
“PRC’s adoption in the 1990s was the initial step towards feeding a money-hungry unethical culture – If I’m going to my boss’s office to talk about compensation and if I step on some guy’s throat and that doubles it, then I’ll stomp on that guy’s throat.”
You can read a more detailed account of the Enron culture in Kurt Eichenwald’s ‘Conspiracy of Thieves.’
Just how much have things moved on in the past 20 years?
Well, another episode of ‘how not to inspire your team’ occurred just this year at one of the Big 4 accounting firms, KPMG.
Over a Zoom meeting, where consultants voiced trifling concerns such as the death of loved ones, year-long estrangements from friends and families and difficulties in the doubled workload because of homeschooling, the chairman, Bill Michael, lashed out.
He told his workforce to quit moaning and playing the victim card. And, by the way, unconscious didn’t exist.
In the spirit of empathy, I don’t want to demonise business leaders, we can all have the occasional bad day, and everyone is fallible, no matter how large the salary.
The point is that we don’t always need to look to traditional spaces for leadership guidance, and we don’t need the word chief in our title to inspire others; we can all be advocates.
Last year I wrote a blog about skills to increase your value as a freelancer because it’s an existential necessity to add value to the team, project or surroundings.
This piece is an extension of that blog because there are skills to increase your value, and there are skills to help others realise theirs; both outcomes feel great.
Here are five soft skills to lead with, no matter what your role or station.
It’s hard enough to manage your own energy sometimes, but if you have any spare to give to a project or a person, it can go a long way.
When you’re operating as a unit, you’re only as energetic as your most tired member, and your project is likely to experience a few energy lags no matter what size.
Your client goes quiet or on holiday, and everyone loses the momentum or forgets the relevance.
The sun comes out, and everyone goes to the park, and in the bright light of the rays, it doesn’t feel as vital as it used to.
You can leave it to die, or you can give it one last chance for life by injecting something into it.
In the Tour de France last year, the Belgian rider Jens Debusschere made the ultimate sacrifice for the team and his leader by giving the gift of his energy on day 17 of the race.
For most of us, it won’t be that dramatic.
A client and I were losing energy on a website. It was in that danger zone of not having a critical deadline, but to not finish it would be a waste of a month’s worth of planning, and we were running out of time.
So we instigated daily check-ins to bring back momentum and keep close and accountable to the project. We ended up exceeding our expectations and finishing a site that we were both proud of within the week.
Increasing the energy could involve
– more contact (ours were video conference)
– a reminder of why the project matters
– some plain old enthusiasm
– or an offer to help out with the work that has slowed
Empowerment is helping someone achieve, but real empowerment is helping someone achieve something for their good, rather than the interest of your company share price or to make you look good, though these are sometimes pleasant by-products.
You can’t make someone do something for themselves; you can’t buy them some real empowerment so that it might feel tricky, but there is a simple set of tactics that you can use.
They might not work, but they just might, and usually, as you apply these tactics to someone else, it’s a gentle reminder to yourself.
It’s often a set of mindset barriers that stop people from trying out new things or pursuing a dream, or trying to elevate their craft. So what can you do to help them take down these barriers?
- A reminder that the consequences of trying and failing are rarely devastating
- Or, if they can take it, a spot of binary interrogation might help them along.
GIVING POSITIVE FEEDBACK
A missed opportunity amongst colleagues, freelancers, friends etc., is making an effort to give positive feedback. We forget or assume the person knows that they’ve done something great, or we’re embarrassed, but the effect can be enormous.
Positive feedback, especially when it’s not expected or asked for, can give a person a lot of confidence, a wonderful and free gift to make of someone.
It can also have a ripple effect. You take the time to pay someone a compliment; they recognise the impact, pass it on to someone else, or even back to you.
FOSTERING CREATIVE COURAGE
Thinking differently and proposing new ideas is a courageous act. I realised how nervous I was this year offering a creative brief to a technology company.
My frightened self wanted to propose something that they would like, but my braver self pushed this aside and went for something they wouldn’t have thought of.
They loved it, but it’s hard, and my little inner pep talk ran through all of the disasters that might emerge if they didn’t like the idea.
And I couldn’t find many. Can you break through these barriers for others on your team and encourage an environment of creative courage?
We all experience feeling out of our depth or nervous about putting an idea forward, especially if an obnoxious team member dismisses ideas.
But there’s no real downside to creative courage because even if the idea is rejected or ridiculed, you’ve pushed outside of your comfort zone.
Listening, encouraging discussions around new ideas, being constructive in your meetings and joining the conversations are ways to foster creative courage.
An ambition loop is a positive feedback loop where different parties tackle big problems, such as climate change. In doing so, they encourage one another to make more giant steps towards more ambitious goals.
A business mastermind group operates under the same principles. Or the philosophy of surrounding yourself with people more expert or aware or intelligent than you to up the stakes in your learning and development.
You don’t need to be a coach to kick this off; you can invite others into your ambition loop, or you can encourage others by getting them to create their own and joining in.
The purpose is to facilitate more significant ideas and knock down barriers to people being more ambitious – positive ambition, not Enron ambition, of course.
Again we have the same set of skills to enable this – listening, providing encouragement, sharing stories, giving your enthusiasm.
I hope you’ve found this encouraging. It’s never been easier to inspire people. Covid has driven us back into the home but connected us online in a way we had never expected before.
How we use our space is up to us. Let the influencers influence; the complainers moan on; the bosses try and tell us how to behave while creating our own experience based on a new set of criteria where anyone can lead. Anyone can listen when there is something to be said.
Thanks so much for reading. I’m a freelance writer and storyteller creating blogs and articles about deciphering my way through this world.
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