Monday, September 3, 2018

Our Aspirations. And those of our Organizations

A few months ago I had lunch with Marcus Monk, an alumnus of the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Marcus played collegiate football and basketball for the Arkansas Razorbacks and then played in professional sports in the US and Europe.

Marcus grew up in Lepanto Arkansas -- a relatively less developed part of Arkansas. Growing up where he did, he hadn’t seen the opportunities the world offered and it was hard for him to develop high aspirations for himself.  But he had something going for him – He was very good at basketball and football. His basketball talent was spotted and he got to travel for competitions.  He talked about how his visits to North West Arkansas and Dallas impacted him. He saw a world that was full of opportunities. One that he had not seen before. And these opportunities served as the foundation for his aspirations. They motivated him and changed his life.

Marcus had a great college career in football and basketball, had a short career in the NFL, and then played Basketball in Europe. He then returned to the Walton College for his MBA and that’s when I got to know him. While Marcus is known for his sports career I have been so much more impressed with what he has done for the kids in Eastern Arkansas. He started a basketball league for them – one in which they get an opportunity to play and travel to various cities. As he put it, this league gave those kids a chance to see the world, to see what was possible, and to change their lives by building high aspirations (Details of Marcus’ work with the kids is a story for another blog).  At one point during our lunch I asked Marcus whether being in an area with few opportunities made him frustrated as a youth. His response stunned me for its simplicity, humility and depth –“You know, in life, if all you’ve ever seen and eaten is rice, then that’s your world – that’s all you think of eating. You don’t miss anything else because you don’t know anything better exists.”

Marcus Monk, while on an India Study
Abroad program during his MBA program
at the Sam Walton College of Business
(University of Arkansas).
I’ve thought many times about that conversation. And thought about how we create high aspirations in ourselves, in our kids, and those we work with. There is significant research in the management literature that high aspirations lead to greater motivation and better outcomes for individuals who have them. The amount of life exposures we or our kids experience is certainly one of them. Our supportiveness to our kids and mentees when their aspirations are forming is another. But our support can’t be automatic and blind either. I remember a time when my daughter was in elementary school. She worked on periodic projects for a particular class. She worked hard, but could have worked harder. There were a few errors in her weekly projects for the class. But her teacher was encouraging. And often she would give her an A+ ‘for effort’ anyway. It sounded great. Till one day when my daughter was working on her project, and I spotted an error. I pointed it out. But she said no worries…she would probably get an A anyway. It was a lesson I never forgot. Blind encouragement can also lower aspirations for excellence.

And this leads to an interesting leadership challenge. Organizational leaders today often create visions and aspirations for their organizations. Such visions are designed to provide direction and unity to an organization. But, especially in large organizations, this can be hard. For instance, imagine a health care organization that aspires to be the best in the world in geriatric care. A very noble aspiration. But that aspiration is unlikely to connect to the organization’s internal auditor, who spends her days going through financial transactions. She may have a very different set of goals that can’t easily link to the organizational vision. In fact, several research studies have shown that when organizations have such noble visions, if their employees cannot link their work and associated short term goals with them, it actually leads to reduced employee engagement.

A recent article published in the journal “Administrative Science Quarterly” addresses some of these issues. The author, Andrew Carton, performed an inductive analysis to determine how John F. Kennedy’s Vision for NASA to land a man on the moon (within 10 years) was translated for NASA employees. His research identified several actions that can be taken. One of the proposed actions includes keeping the organization’s vision clear and simple. Too many elements in the vision create confusion. A second factor is the need to associate the vision with clear measurable objectives that help measure our progress towards the realization of this vision.  However, these measures should not solely be distal measures that are to be accomplished over a long period of time.  There have to be clear intermediate markers or ‘stepping stones’ that show the path the organization has to take to achieve its vision over time.

Within the organization, the leaders and managers have to try and link employee tasks and short term goals to these milestones. It is much easier to create the linkages of specialized employee work to these intermediate milestones than to the distal objectives embodied in the vision.  When done successfully, it reaps huge benefits as employees’ aspirations begin to align with those of the organizations, giving their work so much more meaning. A successful effort that uses organizational aspirations to impart meaningfulness to employee tasks, is best summarized in the title of Andrew Crane’s paper.  “I’m not mopping the floors, I’m putting a man on the moon.”

No comments:

Post a Comment