Hi, and welcome to the Uncommon Leadership interview series.
I’m Michael Hunter with Uncommon Teams.
In this series, I talk with leaders in software like you about their journey to seeing people as people and learning to leverage their unique gifts to best accomplish their goals.
Today I’m chatting with Jeff Griffiths.
Jeff is the Managing Director and co-founder of Workforce Strategies International, a Canadian management consulting firm. They focus on helping clients supply competency and people-based approaches to maximize their operating results and impact. He’s had a varied career, in the military as an officer in the Canadian Air Force, in the business world in manufacturing and aerospace, and as a Certified Management Consultant for the last 20-plus years. J
Welcome to Uncommon Leadership, Jeff!
Jeff Griffiths 1:01
Thanks, Michael, a pleasure to be here with you today.
Happy to have you here.
Reflecting back over your journey to seeing people as people and leveraging their unique gifts, when did you first recognize that that might be valuable?
I think I’d have to go back all the way to my military career.
The thing that really made it stick out for me was a particular assignment that I had when I was in the Air Force.
The Canadian military, for your listeners who aren’t from Canada, is tiny compared to militaries in most places. So, we never really had enough of anything. Except things to do.
I was the operations officer on a very small, tiny by American standards, mobile radar, defense air radar squadron.
We were tasked to go down onto the southern US border to do a counter-narcotics operation. This was in the early 1990s when that was a thing.
We went down there with everything we owned and 12 people and operated more or less autonomously for a couple of months. With never more than, after we got the radar set up, never more than three people out on the radar at any given time at the actual operations site.
When they replaced us eventually, the unit that was sent in to replace us brought 75 people to do the same job, which amazed me.
That really got me thinking.
How was it possible for us to do this with so few people, and do it as well as we were capable of doing it?
It wasn’t because we were elite. It wasn’t because we were a handpicked team.
Like all military units, we had a lot of churn, a lot of turnover. New people would post in every year, experienced people would post out, and we’d sort of have to shuffle the deck and figure out, “Well, how are we going to make this work now?”
What I realized was that it was because we were using what I’ve since come to term, Whole Person Competency: using every single skill and capability that people had whether it was part of their job description or not. And then giving them the opportunity to learn how to do even more things.
We were able to punch way above our weight in terms of what we could do.
I’ve been trying to apply that in other fields ever since. This notion that, if you look at people as more than their job description, if you work from strength, and you give people an opportunity to do things that they actually enjoy doing, and you cross-train and add skill constantly to people, you wind up with capabilities that on paper aren’t supposed to be possible. And you basically create an organization that can then think its way to a solution and do things that are way beyond its brief. You’re future-proof.
I think that that’s really the genesis of it. I’ve been kind of working on that for the time ever since. So that’s like going on, what, 30-odd, 35 years now.
You said you were replaced with a 75-person team. How big was your team?
We had 12. That’s operations, maintenance, and everything.
So yeah, tiny, and that wasn’t like we only brought 12. We only had 12. And we weren’t gonna get any more. So that was the gist of it. And I think that’s at the time fairly typical of the Canadian military, that we were constantly trying to do things without the resources to do it.
Has that been a theme through your career that you’re always coming in with this, “We’re working with this little tiny team trying to do as much as some much bigger team?”
I’ve seen it over and over again, when I got out of the military, working in the aerospace sector.
Again, small, proficient teams that can trade off each other’s strengths that are not necessarily bound by the constraints of job description and organizational structure always seem to be able to get more done. You can go back even through history, of the kind of skunkworks operations and some of the amazing things that, like Lockheed was able to do through their skunkworks with relatively small groups of people that just had the leashes taken off of them.
I’ve seen it again in other spaces, other places, in manufacturing as well. There’s a lot of process in manufacturing, but allowing people to work beyond the process and use all of their skills in all the different ways that they’re capable of, it just drives quantum leaps and bounds and productivity and innovation and everything else. And we’ve seen it in many different environments.
How much of the time are you doing this, “Everybody do what they love doing and let’s leave the rest to everyone else who’s gonna love some part of that?” How much of the time is this visible, or told to people outside the team management and up, especially that this is what you’re doing? And how much are you just doing and no one else notices?
I again, I think it depends on the organization.
We’ve found it’s a lot easier to implement this stuff on the fringes.
So, if you have a small organization or a little skunkworks thing, organization within an organization, you tend to be able to do this. In a smaller organization, where you can work through with the entire team in this way, it’s certainly easier to do.
A lot of larger organizations have a real difficult time with this because no one likes to have a rogue cell running around inside.
When we’ve done it in, say, manufacturing, it’s always been in one plant. Or sometimes maybe it’s the prototyping cell or maybe it’s a portion of an operation. And then, when the results start coming in, and people start asking questions, like “How the heck are you able to do that?” that’s when it starts becoming viral and seeping out through the rest of the organization.
I worked for a company that does software engineering integration for the aerospace sector. And that’s about as heavily process-oriented as you can get, right? I mean, we were a CMMI Level Five-compliant operation, which means we lived and died by our processes. And yet, when we started to do some of this stuff within, say integrated logistics support within those larger projects, we were able to generate incredible results very quickly with a very small footprint. And again, when the management start seeing this, they start asking questions. Then you gotta fess up and let them know what you’ve been up to. And if they’re smart, then they start filtering it through the rest of the organization.
I really like that example, because it shows that even when you have a highly regulated space or a lot of process that you have to comply with, you still have the freedom to implement this sort of approach.
I think so.
A lot of it, I think, has to come from leadership. Managers have to be willing to let go. You lose control to gain control, I guess. And that’s scary, to say, “Hey, I’m, I’m just going to take my hands off the steering wheel, and we’re just going to let this thing happen.” And that’s terrifying. It’s a terrifying environment to be in. But in a rapidly changing world, you can’t have.
As leaders, your job is to set the table and let people eat. It’s not to feed them. And so, we need to get out of that “I need to control every aspect” mindset that exists in a lot of organizations and certainly in a lot of managers.
So, when you’ve been faced with someone who has that “I need to control everything” mindset, how have you helped them turn into “Oh, I just need to set the table not actually feed them?”
One of the examples is when we were working back a few years in the manufacturing sector.
We took all of the leadership out of the plant. We were sitting down at an off-site meeting at a hotel a few miles away from the plant, and we banned cell phones. No one was allowed to bring a cell phone into the room so they couldn’t be constantly checking on what was going on in the plant.
And we had an interesting discussion, “What is it that you do and why is that important?” And everything else.
And so, then the question is, “So, who’s doing it now?”
And I was amazed. It’s kind of a stupid question, but I was amazed at the number of light bulbs you could see going off around the room really realizing “Holy crap, I am not there. And the plant’s not burning down. Production is still happening. Stuff is still getting done. We didn’t kill anybody. The safety record was just fine.”
We kept them out of there for two whole days and let the people run things because they knew how and solve problems as they went and then find out about it later.
It was an absolutely terrifying experience for some of those managers. But I think they came out of it with a real sense of, “Hey, you know what, maybe I don’t have to do this.” And sometimes that kind of shock treatment is the only thing you can do.
Now, everybody looks at examples and everything else. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. But that’s not here. It will never work here.”
And we were in a position where we literally forced it on them and said, “Well, that’s just the way it’s got to be.” They may have reverted back to type after we got finished with them. But it was an interesting next few weeks, working on improvements and things like that within the organization, because they were much more willing to let go and let people do their thing.
A lot of it is a question of trust as well. The reality is, if they haven’t built their team up where they can trust them to do their jobs, then they haven’t done their job.
I think that comes out of my military background. For your listeners who have never been in the military, certainly the Canadian military for the longest time, we weren’t fighting wars or doing that kind of stuff. We were doing an awful lot of training. The only thing the military is really good at and always has been, is building people on the presumption that bad things happen. I always came to work saying, “Well, I’m a lieutenant. But I could be the battalion commander by lunchtime if everything goes sideways.”
And so that mindset always exists. I have to train. I have to build up the people who are one and two and three layers below me. Because I might not be here to manage it all myself.
Certainly, when we were doing an operational evaluation in the military, the first thing you would do if you saw that there were key personnel who were driving everything, as an exercise umpire, the first thing you would do is you would kill them off. And now let’s see if this unit really knows what it’s doing, or is it really leader-dependent?
In the private sector, we don’t see that mindset, really. And yet, that’s the primary role of leadership is to release the potential to grow and release the potential of their people. And so sometimes they have to learn that the hard way.
That same potential, that anyone through that leadership structure might disappear tomorrow, because someone in their family gets COVID, because there’s a hurricane that runs through their backyard, or they’re just in a traffic accident.
Or they get a better job.
Or they get a better job.
So, you have to build a resiliency into the organization.
That comes from taking a lot of the constraints off of action, and allowing people to use all of their skills and apply them in the world.
We learned it, I don’t think it was a conscious decision at first. It was out of necessity.
Once we realized what was going on, then we were actually very intentional about making sure that we understood where everybody could do all the things they could do. Things they were doing even outside of work that we could find ways to give them opportunities to apply on the job. And we were able to do the work of units six times our size.
How do you identify that information? How do you figure out that Joe is great at crafting a story around what’s going on? And Miranda is fantastic at making things pretty or making code pretty. While Mohammed is great keeping my team morale up. Or whatever the different things are that need to get done.
The short answer is simple: you ask.
Before anybody will actually tell you, you have to build trust.
It’s really on leadership to create the trust and the openness around these things. And demonstrate that, why you’re doing it and what you’re trying to do.
It’s not about “I want you to do all kinds of things that you’re not being paid to do.” It’s “I want to give you the opportunity to do things that you know and value the strengths and the capabilities that you have in the context of the things that we’re paying you to do.”
It’s not an overnight process, either. You have to work your way towards it.
If I go back to The Little Radar That Could. We had a squadron hockey team. (It’s a Canadian thing, right.) We had a hockey team, which was also small because we had a small unit and we were playing against much bigger units within our wing. And we developed that understanding and trust and break down the hierarchy and the rank structure. So, myself and the commanding officer, we were just the third pair defenseman, we weren’t in charge of the hockey team. We had privates and corporals who knew what they were doing who did that. And then that, kind of bled over into some of the other things we were doing.
Through the way you manage work on the job, the way you trust people on the job and build trust with people on the job, the way you find opportunities and offer opportunities for people to use all of their strengths and skills. Over time that builds up your understanding of what it is that people can do, but also people’s willingness to experiment.
And the other piece of it is, if you’re giving people stuff to do that’s outside of the parameters of their job description, you have to make sure it’s a no-fault environment. No one should get fired for stepping over the line.
That’s why it’s easier to do this in a skunkworks-type of an environment. But it’s not impossible to do it within a larger firm.
Do you have any tips or tricks for helping, for doing that in those larger groups?
Do what? Finding out what people are good at?
And building that trusting environment, where it’s safe to go outside the boundary of what you know that you can do and you know that your people can do and let them sort of fail in a safe way.
We’ll go back to experience in manufacturing and in other environments.
You can build a lot of that trust and a lot of this mindset through improvement projects and improvement teams within the organization. Especially if the leaders are not running things. We discourage managers from running things. They can participate in them, we don’t want them running them. It provides that opportunity for people to start thinking and start checking, start experimenting.
So, through the many organizations where we’ve been, kaizen is sort of this thing that gets inflicted on the organization by a bunch of outside consultants. It’s not a way of life. And everybody just kind of holds their breath until the consultants leave and then we go back to doing things like we always did.
But if you can build up through little improvements, small improvements, little things that we can do at a team level, and make the teams responsible for figuring it out and implementing it and making it work, over time, you can create that level of trust as well as that confidence to experiment.
It requires a lot of patience.
And it requires a leader who’s willing to stand up in front of the boss and say, “When things go right, it’s their fault. When things go wrong, it’s my fault and you can blame me.” And wear it, instead of pointing down at somebody down the line and saying, “It was their idea.” You do that once and that’s it, you’re done. You’ll never get an innovation out of a team again.
Is there something that you’re working on now? That’s stretching your abilities in this area?
We’re consultants. We’re constantly stretching our abilities.
We’re building a team internally, which is neat, because it’s kind of practice what you preach.
We’ve been doing some work in the biotechnology space where you’re working with obviously, the big, multinational firms. You know, the main names, the Pfizers, Mercks, and everybody else. So much of this happening and literally is four people around a test tube kind of stuff, literally the garage band operation. And then they try to scale and it’s an interesting dynamic.
We’re working with a group, an innovative group now, that’s working with some really, really, really cool technology. And they need to scale in order, and, they don’t ever have enough of anything, but scale up production, scale up their processes and that using whatever people they happen to have lying around. And yet the mindset of the engineers who are involved in it is, “We have to build a machine, cogs in the wheel, everything’s got to be structured.” And we’re saying “No, no, actually, let’s try something else. Let’s try letting your organization grow and innovate. The way you and your three partners did when you were figuring this out in the first place.” How do we make that happen? And what other skills do we have to provide for these people, and what supports do we have to provide so they can do this? And that’s a real challenge?
And it’s a challenge with any entrepreneur. The last thing an entrepreneur wants to do is give up control. And yet it’s the most important job, if you want to scale and grow.
So, we’re running into that right now with one of our clients and it’s a fascinating environment. It’s like a little laboratory to play around with this stuff. And they’re making progress and making some interesting things happen.
But we have to constantly be going back again to the leadership to tell them, “Yes, let’s just see what they can do. Let’s give it some time.” Because everybody wants to jump in and fix it.
What’s your favorite story—and this may be the one you opened with—of a time where leveraging people’s unique strengths really took off in a profoundly successful and also unexpected way?
The story of The Little Radar That Could is probably my favorite story.
A totally not business example.
I, like many parents, was once shafted to be the coach of a soccer team. And they weren’t, it wasn’t a very good soccer team. And they weren’t very proficient. Out of four possible divisions, we were like 4B or something. We were the bottom of the heap.
What we had, these are kids, right? They run around. They do what they do. Myself and one of the other parents who wound up being the assistant coach had to try and make something out of this.
It was interesting to watch the progression of the kids over the season. At the beginning it’s…if you’ve ever watched kids’ sports, there’s really only two positions. There’s “I’ve got the ball” and “I don’t have the ball.” And there’s just this mass of little bodies running around all over the place.
So, it’s very directive. It’s very authoritative. It’s very controlling, mostly because they don’t know any better.
And we made a conscious effort to add, every game we would take, a little step further back, a little step further back.
By the end of the season, the kids were figuring out on their own. They developed their own internal communications across the team. We knew who the leaders were. They knew who the leaders were. They knew who was capable of doing what. They learned to trust each other.
All we had to do was make sure there were oranges and water on the sidelines. As coaches. Which was great. Made our job a whole heck of a lot easier.
That happened organically over the course of about 12 weeks. When you only have them for a practice and a game a week.
We watched that development and I think the same thing can happen in organizations.
Obviously, the stakes are a little different in an organization. But I think it just proves what is possible when you take that kind of intentional approach to giving up control.
The stakes are different in business. The time and investment necessary to help this happen, it doesn’t have to be any more than what you did with the soccer kids.
I don’t think so.
We always say, we can turn things around and really change the direction your organization is going in, in 90 days.
So, what’s 90 days, that’s how many weeks? Three months? So, we have 12 weeks. Which is about the length of a minor soccer season.
And what we found is, it’s not easy.
And the other thing that changes in the business world, and I guess is a little different when you’re dealing with minor soccer players or hockey players or whatever, is you’ll have people on the teams with different capabilities. You’ll have people who are really, really good, you’ll have people that aren’t. You’ll have people that are very experienced, and we’ll have people that are very inexperienced. And so, it’s a different dynamic.
But the principle is the same. You still need to understand what that dynamic looks like. You still have to find ways of releasing that potential and growing the experience level and the capabilities of the less experienced or less capable by using the talent that surrounds them from within the team. Not necessarily having to direct it all as the leader. And so, it’s an iterative process.
I think you can accomplish an awful lot in a very, very short period of time. And success feeds on itself. It’s self-reinforcing.
In a lot of ways, it’s like raising a puppy.
I always say we should work like dogs. People give me the sort of stink eye about that. But when you think about, I have Labrador Retrievers, and when you look at a dog working, I mean, we should all be so lucky. It’s totally focused, doing work that they love, using all of their skills, doing things, something that they were born and bred to do, and the best reward is they get to come back tomorrow and do it again.
If we all worked in that kind of an environment, wouldn’t the world be great?
And the secret to training a dog is to never let them make a bad enough mistake. Build on success. Build on strength. Work with their individual capability. Bring them along in a step at a time.
I’ll be getting, you’ll probably get hate mail for this.
People aren’t actually all that different. There’s a bigger, there’s more dynamics at play. But the principles are very similar.
Everybody likes to be successful. And so, as a leader, your job is to make it so that people are successful and not necessarily find ways to tell them that they’re not.
Hopefully that’s helpful.
I find that helpful. I’m sure my audience will too.
That reminds me that Dani Weinberg, who is married to Jerry Weinberg, industry legend, trained dogs for a long time using basically that process. And she came to that after, and I think also during, working with Jerry, consulting to companies helping them do these things, same things. And in her book, she more or less says exactly what you did. That the way you work with people and the way you work with dogs is exactly the same way. Catch them doing things right. Help them, push them a little bit in the direction that you want them to get, sort of guide them and learn them in, and amazing things happen.
And that becomes self-reinforcing. It’s a wonderful environment to work in.
We like to think we’re a little more sophisticated than that. But in the end, you know, you scratch deep enough, we’re all animals. There are certain things that just seem to work.
So, I’m not saying treat everybody like a dog. But I am saying that the psychology of reinforcement and working from strength, it’s been proven over and over and over again, and we know it works. We’ve known for decades that it works, going back to research that was conducted as far back as the 40s and the 50s. So that makes it older than me. We’ve known. Dan Pink wrote a whole book about it. His book Drive talks all about some of the research that tells us how to motivate and drive performance out of people by taking the reins off and taking their constraints off and letting them be the best that they can be.
We’ve covered a lot of ground today. What else should I ask you?
That’s always the tough question.
What else you should ask?
One of the things you can ask me about is identifying competency, because that’s sort of bread-and-butter work for us. And it’s one of the areas where we find managers think they know it, but they don’t actually do it very well.
How do you do that, in three minutes or less?
In three minutes or less?
It really starts when we make this a team effort.
People who are doing the job generally know what doing the job right looks like and what it takes to do the job right. And managers aren’t necessarily the best people, in the best position to do it.
Engendering the trust by actually working with competent people. Defining within a framework, within a structure, what competent performance looks like. What are the underlying things that lead to competent performance and the visible evidence that someone is competent?
Letting the individuals, the team members, work that on their own, without, necessarily, management being involved in it other than to support the effort, really helps to lay out the essence of it.
The problem with getting consultants and managers involved in is it gets complete becomes way too complicated, because we have a tendency of doing that.
We can boil down the critical things that someone needs to be able to do on almost any job into you know, 10, 12, 15 measurable things that you can manage to every day, and then build from there.
Then you add on, “Okay, well, what else can you do?” because no one has their job description.
That for me is the critical step in driving this.
It shouldn’t be an activity that’s ran by HR. It needs to happen at the team level by the line management and their personnel.
How do I do for the three minutes?
I wasn’t timing. It was about right.
“And what else can you do?” I love that question. I’m gonna take that.
What do you want to leave our audience with?
I guess if there’s one message, it’s that, I’ve said it over and over and over. Nobody is their job description. And organizations are not machines.
If you want to see the potential, and allow an organization to punch above its weight and do amazing things, you have to start recognizing that every single person in the organization is the sum total of everything they have ever done, and everything they have ever learned.
And to the extent that you as a leader can capture that and apply that and release that into your organization, the better your results will be. The higher your quality, the lower your turnover, the higher your levels of engagement. As scary as it may be, never lose sight of it.
Yeah. Thank you.
And thank you, Jeff, for this fun and edifying conversation today. How can people reach you?
The easiest way is to email me directly. So firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m sure you’ll put this into the show notes. I’m on LinkedIn. Look me up, Jeff Griffiths Workforce Strategies International, you’ll find me on LinkedIn. Connect with me on LinkedIn, we’re publishing stuff all the time. Most of what I’m talking about it isn’t particularly sophisticated. I’m glad to discuss it with anybody who’s interested.
And, if you’d like to learn more about the work that I do, you’re in the right spot. You’ll find more episodes of this interview series right here. And if you’d like more great conversations like the one with Jeff today, sign up for my newsletter at the top of this page.
Thanks so much. Have an edifying day!