Most successful leaders are constantly looking for ways to improve their organization’s results and internal environment. It can be difficult, though, for them to identify which of their efforts actually pay off. So it’s extremely useful when a leader can detail the strategies they’ve implemented to move their business forward.
Kevin Jones, CEO of Rackspace Technology, a global, multicloud technology services provider, relies on seven strategies to boost growth and sustain progress while maintaining high levels of employee engagement and satisfaction. These approaches can be difficult to initiate, and Jones notes that a high performance-based culture is not for everyone, but the combination has been so productive at Rackspace that it’s worth considering how to adapt these strategies to your business’s needs.
Identify the crucial leadership attributes for your environment. At Rackspace, Jones defines the top three leadership attributes as responsibility, in which a person “gets their arms around an issue or problem and takes ownership for it;” execution, which means being able to implement without needing anyone to follow up with you; and pace, because “particularly in the technology industry, if you don’t move fast, you’re going to get left behind.”
Create an environment of simultaneous openness and closeness. Jones believes that flat organizations are more agile and can avoid the problems that often ensue when leadership messages are filtered through countless layers of bureaucracy. He goes beyond the classic “open door” and encourages employees and customers alike to call his cellphone if they’re struggling with a problem. At the same time, Jones is comfortable acknowledging that he doesn’t have all the answers; in the spirit of openness, he often invites company founders and past CEOs to provide input. This combination of direct access and willingness to accept feedback requires both leadership humility and confidence.
Instead of just asking for change, design practices that drive change. When leaders harangue employees about continuous improvement or press them for new ideas, many employees sit back rather than step forward. “If you’re going to have sustainable performance,” says Jones, “you have to have a process [that ensures] you’re always transforming.” At Rackspace, that process is based on a structure of roughly 120 discrete projects running at all times with themes ranging from geographic expansion and operating efficiency to employee training. Jones and his entire leadership team meet regularly with project heads to ascertain whether there are any organizational barriers to progress, conflicts needing to be resolved or executive decisions that must be made to move the initiatives forward. Not only do these projects deliver a constant stream of positive changes, but the people who run them often turn out to be superstars who get promoted or receive special development.
Strengthen the culture rather than fighting it. As management guru Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Jones likes to find things that are positive and working well and then double down on them; he uses that strength as the basis for pivoting to a related pursuit so employees can have similar experiences. For example, Rackspace has a deep culture of being fanatical about customer support. When growing faster required more sales, Jones doubled down on employees’ excitement about resolving customer problems and helped them pivot to experiencing the excitement of winning customers’ business.
Don’t “admire” your problems. It’s important to be comfortable facing problems, but treating them as precious or mysterious increases their negative impact. Rather than just reviewing the same issues week after week, as happens in so many companies, “Get them on the table,” Jones says. “It’s okay if you hit a brick wall, but don’t just stay there. Let’s be open about what the problems are, but let’s get to solving them.” His need for speed, combined with humility about not having all the answers, prompts him not to let his own problems languish. He’ll bring several people together and announce, “I don’t know how to solve this. What do you think?” Team members always have other ideas and propose alternative solutions, after which forward action can resume.
Reduce nonpriority activities. Jones is an adherent of the principle attributed to Peter Thiel that whatever your plan is for the next ten years, you should ask why you can’t get it done in the next six months. Of course, it’s not possible merely to work faster at everything, so even to consider that kind of acceleration, you must be rigorous about pruning back the things you can’t and shouldn’t do. For instance, Jones persistently challenges Rackers to screen their activities based on whether they are related to a “fanatical customer experience, being a best place to work or superior financial performance. If not, then let’s just focus on something else.”
Use decisions to ensure alignment. Rackspace has a “management system” of meetings that regularly review metrics, barriers to success, resources needed, and conflicts that need to be resolved. From time to time, even the priorities of customer experience, financial performance and being a best place to work may be at odds with each other. When that happens, Jones and his team evaluate the tradeoffs and make a call rather than letting tensions fester; this way, everyone can continue their work at pace. If a complex conflict recurs, they set up a focus team with representation from all affected groups to dig into the problem until it’s fully resolved. Then the focus team is disbanded, and the management system takes over, says Jones. “But now everybody’s got muscle memory for that issue…and you’re always kind of sensitive to it.”
When you consider each of these strategies independently, you can see how it would benefit the organization. It’s by taking the further step of overlaying and integrating all these strategies, though, that will help you create both the momentum and the accountability to accelerate and sustain growth while keeping your employees positively engaged.
A version of this article appeared on forbes.com, posted on March 25, 2021,
EXPERD, Human Resources Consultant, Jakarta – Indonesia