Isaac Getz is a professor of Idea, Involvement, and Innovation Management at the ESCP Europe Paris Campus. He has been Visiting Professor at Cornell University, Stanford University and at the University of Massachusetts. He graduated in Computer Science, then obtained a M.Sc. in Management Science, a Doctorate in Psychology and a post-doctoral degree (HDR) in Management.
Dr. Getz conducts research and publishes on diverse topics related to innovation, management, corporate excellence, vision, and growth.
He is an active speaker on the topics of idea and innovation management, employee initiative and involvement, and corporate excellence and change. He has given executive conferences and training seminars for numerous companies and organizations. His work on idea management and excellence has brought him into over one hundred leading companies in France and around the world.
In 2003, Dr. Getz co-authored with Alan Robinson a book entitled InnovationsPOWER in German (also published in French, Dutch--new editions in 2007,Italian and Spanish) which details the key role of idea management in improving corporate financial performance, innovation, and profitable growth. It was one of the 3 finalists for the annual Manpower Best Book Award in France. A book, Freedom, Inc., co-authored with Brian Carney, was published with Crown Business in October 2009.
Liberté et Cie, Fayard, Fév. 2012 (la version anglaise Freedom, Inc. est parue chez Crown Business en Oct. 2009)
When a person hears about companies in which employees are completely free and responsible to take any action they decide is the best for the company, his first reaction is often: “Utopia!” And he would be right to react this way. Not only is the prevalence of hierarchical bureaucracies in the corporate world quasi total, but many are very successful. Think GE and Microsoft at the end of 20th century or Apple in the 21st. What’s more, the famous sociologist Max Weber said that dominance of the “bureaucratic organization” was logical and resulted from its “technical superiority over any other form of organization.” He claimed that the demands of the market economy could only be met by a “strictly bureaucratic organization” that was capable of discharging its “official business . . . precisely, unambiguously, continuously, and with as much speed as possible.” However, if this person knew some facts on bureaucracies he might start to question their “superiority”.
In terms of traditional company results, only 2 to 5 percent significantly outperform their competition over a period of a decade, and just 1 percent survives forty years without becoming either bankrupt or acquired—Arcelor and Kodak are just a couple recent examples. Then, in terms of costs for this not-so-great-performance, consider Columbia University John O. Whitney’s 1990s findings that fully 50% of a traditional company’s activities are unproductive and performed only because of mistrust—either to control or to get around controls. That is not only extremely wasteful but has also left three-quarters of—controlled—employees disengaged, according to Gallup; according to another study, the annual cost of workplace stress in France is between 830 M € and 1374 M €, that is 10 to 20 % of the budget of accidents/professional illness. (coût de stress en France en 2000 est entre 830 M € et 1374 M €, soit 10 à 20 % du budget de la branche accidents du travail/maladie professionnelle.) Add to this that workplace stress is a key contributor in 75 to 90 percent of all primary-care doctor visits, and visions of bureaucracy’s superiority don’t seem so definitive.
Is this news? Not really. Most employees know it: After all, they are the ones who suffer from disengagement and stress. Managers know it too: Studies show that the average executive believes his organization is functioning at about 60 percent of its productivity potential. Why, then, do so few attempt to build an alternative to hierarchical bureaucracy?
This mystery drove four years of research that brought my co-author Brian Carney and me close to thirty companies in which employees are free and responsible to take actions that they—not their bosses or some procedures—decide are the best for the company. We called these companies “Freedom Inc.’s,” and although we observed their functioning in four countries in a diversity of industries and extracted some commonalities among them, our focus was deeper: their emergence. We wanted to know how “utopias” are built in reality.
We found that every successful Freedom Inc. has been initiated and built by one person—men and in one case, a woman—at its top, whom we dubbed a liberating leader. We interviewed these current or former CEOs or owners looking to understand what exactly they did, and we can summarize liberating leadership in the following four principles:
They stopped telling people how to do their work and started listening to their solutions. Then they removed all the other symbols and practices that prevented their people from feeling intrinsically equal.
They started openly and actively sharing their vision of the company so people would “own” it. But they didn’t do this before the first step, because people who are not treated as equals—with respect, fairness, and trust—leave their leaders alone with their vision.
They stopped motivating people. That is, they stopped using carrots—and sticks—to make people do what they are disinclined to do. Instead, they built an environment that allowed people to grow and self-direct—and let them motivate themselves. If people understood the leader’s vision, they could take care of the rest when the leader let them.
They stayed alert. To keep their company free, they became the culture-keepers. In this role, as Radica Games co-founder Bob Davids says, “one drop of urine in the soup is too much—and you can’t get it out.” The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
Those are general liberating leadership principles, but each liberating leader we studied had to apply them to his own reality, his own unique set of circumstances—and so can others. In other words, this isn’t a formula, a tool, a technique. As a British saying goes, “a fool with a tool is still a fool.” This leads us to the question of whether the liberating leaders who successfully applied those principles possess some distinguishing features.
Among the leaders we studied, we found no such features in terms of their social origins (which ranged from the toughest suburbs to extremely privileged milieu), their education (most had college degrees but in a variety of fields, from arts and liberal arts to accounting, engineering, law, and even military; few had business degrees), or their professional experience (executives, designers, engineers, military). This wasn’t surprising: We did not expect that a liberating leader—an extreme case of the transforming leader who James Burns defined—would be characterized by a pattern of social, educational and professional traits. However, we did find three distinguishing character and psychological traits: egalitarian values—respect, dignity, consideration, trust, fairness, equity; creativity—an ability to redefine problems; and wisdom—holistic (considering all of the ways in which one problem may be related to its surrounding circumstances) and dialectical (entertaining both sides of an apparent contradiction) thinking style. The combination of these traits is rare, which partly explains why there are so few liberating leaders. But there is more. Having some traits is a predisposition; a leader must live certain experiences to fulfil it.
Bob Davids, whose intellectual mentor was Up the Organization guru Robert Townsend, remarked to us that “the people that are already predisposed to such leadership can easily get the concept but maybe not put it into practice.” It’s natural for a leader holding egalitarian values to become highly critical of an organization that consistently violates them. Yet criticism rarely triggers action. We found that these triggers stem from two fundamental emotional experiences: exasperation with traditional command-and-control organizations and admiration of freedom-based ones.
So that’s where liberation campaigns originate: with heads of companies whose egalitarian values lead them to exasperation with organizational cultures and admiration for those based on the freedom of action. At that point, their creativity and wisdom allows them to successfully master the liberating leadership process. This isn’t easy, of course, which is why there are so few liberating leaders. But companies with continuous outstanding performance over time are similarly rare, and liberating leadership is one way to get there. It has an important advantage over other ways: in every Freedom Inc., outstanding performance is reached through people’s happiness—not through the lack of it. And though looking like a utopia this organizational form exists for decades in dozens of firms at the top of their industries and increasingly attracts more and more companies.