Sunday 23 October 2011

Are you a good gardener?

On Friday I went to an event at London Business School where the very engaging Henry Stewart spoke about the company he founded, Happy Computers. Henry's philosophy is that the main focus of management and leadership is to make staff happy - as simple as that! I first came across Henry Stewart in the The Spirited Business by Georgeanne Lamont which is a really thought-provoking and interesting book which I fully recommend to you, but this was the first time I'd heard him speak.

As I have reflected on this I have come to realise that personal happiness goes hand in hand with doing amazing work. If people have gifts, talents, abilities and attributes then their natural state - and the one that gives them the greatest sense of wellbeing - is to be using and giving these. It is when we cannot use them, or use them to their fullest, that we become unhappy.

So, surely leadership is about creating the right environment to enable people to use, express and give what is already inside of them. I recently gave a presentation about leadership where I planted a sunflower seed. A sunflower seed doesn't need to be told how to become a sunflower. It doesn't need training to develop from a tiny unpromising-looking small hard thing into a beautiful, astonishingly large, bright yellow flower. It has all that potential and ability to realise this, inside of itself. What it does need though is the right environment. It needs somewhere to put roots down - a healthy culture that will give it stability and sustenance as it grows. It needs nutrients and water to feed it and enable it to grow. It needs the light and warmth of the sun. In a similar way, we need a place to put roots down - a sense of belonging and the support of colleagues is very important to many of us. We need food and water - guidance, direction, the passion of others, their skills, challenges, new ideas and new approaches (to name but a few). And we need warmth and light - encouragement, care, support through the tough times, praise, appreciation, love - expressed in many, many different ways.

As leaders we can be good gardeners! We can nurture and protect seedlings and young plants and enable them to flourish. But we can also inadvertently harm tender plants. Henry spoke about a concept at Happy Computers called 'Pre-approval'. What this means is that a manager approves the solution before a team or individual has thought of it! The paramenters (such as budget) are defined in advance and then a person or group is asked to implement a solution or improvement without telling their manager what it is. Why? Because Henry realised that it was when ideas came across his desk that they were blocked. He unintentionally became a barrier. By removing himself from the decision-making he has enabled people to more fully express their gifts, and to be happier. 

As leaders we need to know when to be attentive gardeners, and when to step back and watch beautiful flowers bloom all by themselves.

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