Article: Tom Watson on how to unleash potential of people


Tom Watson on how to unleash potential of people

Tom Watson, International Execution Practice Leader, FranklinCovey, on challenges in strategy execution, building capability for future and more
Tom Watson on how to unleash potential of people

The culture within an organization is like a processor. If I have a brilliant strategic program, but a lousy processor, I may get the result but it takes a while getting there


We see things from the outside and ask questions that usually organizations have a tendency not to ask themselves


Tom Watson is the Senior Consultant and International Execution Practice Leader for FranklinCovey’s Execution Practice and specializes in working with executive teams in both private and public organizations to execute on their top strategies, and also provides consultative solutions in Execution, Leadership and Trust. In this interview, he discusses how the culture and the strategy of an organization affect each other and how leaders can execute their goals much more effectively when they are able to communicate their vision to each and every employee and enlist their support in the journey. 

Getting a buy-in from the employees is important for the leaders to execute their strategy. In what ways are organizations struggling with this?

Leaders who are visionaries have a clear picture as to where they’re going. When we ask a CEO or the President of a company, “How many of the people in your organization will be able to identify your drive to improve things?”, on an average, they say 80 percent will be able to identify it. When we ask the employees, 50 percent of them say that they know what the leader’s drive is. Then we ask them what this ‘drive’ is, only 15 percent of employees are able to tell what it is. We call this a problem of clarity when people can't tell what the goal is. And even when they can, there is a problem of translation. They may know what this drive to improve things is but they don't know how that translates to their jobs. It is one thing to know and quite another to be able to act on it. The organization cannot move forward until employees can take that individual ownership of the goals.

How can leaders reach out to employees in communicating their vision and also have them take ownership?

Part of the challenge is not just to tell employees to do something, but to have them see things differently. When leaders have to clearly describe their drive, they become so passionate and invested in their own vision that they start telling people what to do in order to get there. The real need for the organization is to do the opposite – that is to ask the employees as to how they can contribute towards it. 

There is so much more to human contribution than telling people what to do. I will give you the FranklinCovey’s perspective on this. Human beings are four-dimensional. We have a heart, a mind, a body and a spirit. You perform a job given to you with your hands or your back. Today you do it with your brain, which is different than your mind. Organizations generally hate people to use their minds. Stephen Covey said that you can buy a person’s hands and back but you can’t buy their heart, mind and spirit. Those can only be volunteered and so the real challenge for leaders is to unleash the hearts, minds and spirits of the employees, which is something that that cannot be bought. Therefore one has to create an environment where employees would want to make a contribution, where they offer their hearts, minds and spirits to the world which is far more valuable. 

How are culture and strategy interconnected within organizations? 

I think that the first thing that organizations need to understand is that although the cultural and strategic sides are interdependent, they are different. Let us just take human effectiveness. We have a solution called “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and we train hundreds of thousands of individuals to become individually effective. And that individual effectiveness translates into an organizational contribution. It’s hard to measure but it becomes evident. When we have highly effective people as individuals, the tendency is to have highly effective teams. They are more collaborative and more engaged in interdependent kinds of work. When we have that, then there is a tendency to have a highly effective organization. The difference is that even if we have highly effective teams or even a highly effective organization, it doesn’t mean we are able to produce a specific strategic outcome. Even if I categorize everybody in my team as highly effective, it doesn’t necessarily mean I am going to have a 20 percent increase in sales. That is a strategic outcome. So when we start to understand the interdependence between the strategic and cultural forces within an organization, we then also start to treat them with a little bit of difference because you will never be able to hire enough of the most effective people to produce a strategic outcome. The strategic result has to be designed, it has to be built and it has to be run to be accomplished.

If culture and strategy are two separate things, then how does good culture enable effective execution of strategy?

The answer is speed. Think of an organization as a computer. A computer has two main systems: the processor and the Operating System. The OS takes a program like an Excel or a Word program, runs it and produces a spreadsheet or a document or whatever the output is. For the OS to produce results, it must have a program to run. Organizational strategy is a little bit like a program. You have an OS that produces the results. The strategy that you choose, the goals that you choose are like the programs. So if I have got a strategic program that is designed to produce these results, that is the strategy. What about the processor? The processor is all about how fast it gets done. The culture within an organization is like a processor. If I have a brilliant strategic program, but a lousy processor, I may get the result but it is a pain getting there. One just loses patience with it. That is what happens when you have a bad culture. In that case, the strategic results are definitely affected by a bad culture. So you can’t just work on one or the other. You have to work on both. From an execution point of view, if you were to ask me which is more important -- the culture is more important because if you have a bad culture it doesn’t matter how brilliant your strategic plan is, it will not yield results. But this is not an either or situation. You got to have good culture and you got to have a good strategic plan. 

Which one has to be fixed first – culture or strategy?

I get that question every time from organizations -- What do we do first? And it is a valid one because an organization may not have the money or the bandwidth to do both at the same time.  Honestly, it depends on who you are talking to. If it’s HR, it’s always going to be culture. If we talk to line leaders, it is always going to be strategy. It really depends on where your most pressing need is. If we have people who are not individually productive, who do not understand the need for effective personal habits, we probably have to think about that first before we think about imposing an effective strategic operating system. There is no right answer but it depends on who you talk to. We never make that decision for organizations. But those things do become rather evident if we are looking at it. When you are looking at that organization from the inside, it is sometimes hard to see the things that people can see from the outside. At FranklinCovey, we see things from the outside and ask questions that usually organizations have a tendency not to ask themselves.

How has your journey been with FranklinCovey?

I came into FranklinCovey, not because I was skilled at training but because I had real world experience that was valuable in the role that I would assume. I wasn’t specifically an execution expert at first but I naturally gravitated towards it. Organizations have cultural challenges and solutions like 7 Habits, leadership and productivity trainings answer such cultural needs. But ‘execution’ is a strategic need and a different kind of 
an organizational problem. This was my real 
world for 27 years – “How do we get something 
executed ?”, “How do we get a thing done at the front line ?” So I naturally just moved in that direction. Now I get to speak about a subject that I understand but with the background of an organization that has created solutions to solve the problems that I always faced but didn’t have solutions for.

What is your advice to the rising HR leaders?

The solution to solve any organizational trauma is not to do something big. We come up with big solutions, big ideas. I think the real genius of HR in any organization is the small things that are implemented from day to day that generate an important cultural or strategic result. The small and simple things that we do consistently over time get big results. In this fast food, fast paced, fast internet, I-want-it-now world – it is all about getting fast solutions to big issues instantaneously. But there is something to be said for the salience of results built on a solid foundation on accumulated efforts. Consistency – that’s what we’re talking about. That is what HR needs to focus on – that there are some things that need to be done urgently now, but there are certain small, non-urgent things which take us ahead in the long run, which need to be done consistently such as how do we do succession planning? How do we make sure that we have got the right people in the right places on the seats in a bus – so that when one person rolls, we have four people ready to go. If I am in HR, that’s what I better be thinking about, because human beings transition either through retirement or through better jobs, which is more common. What are you doing to build capability for future? And the future might be tomorrow. That is something that I am doing everyday – keeping my eye on the fact that while I am taking care of all the urgent things, I am consistently taking care of the future foundation so that we won’t be left without a future to go to. If I were to give you one word for today, it is unleash. Unleash the potential of the people. 

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Topics: Culture, Leadership, Employee Engagement

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