Stephan Thoma was responsible for learning & development at Google and now advises mostly European companies on embracing the Silicon Valley spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. He gave an inspiring talk to a group of leadership professionals organized by Circleradius. He confirmed the common beliefs about leadership at the GAFAs (Google, Amazon, Facebook & Apple) & NATUs (Netflix, Airbnb, Tesla & Uber) of this world. It’s all about culture & purpose.
“Leadership at Google was recognized in two ways. First of all, it’s all about the followers. Leaders typically had an idea, found a first follower and managed to create a tribe. Secondly, leaders were those people who stood up to flawed projects or elephants in the room. They showed courage.” Thoma made a case for “super-intentional” focus on a learning and leadership culture in which leaders can emerge and take initiative.
“At Facebook, the frontline employees are the leaders. The pyramid is reversed. They are managed, not led. The managers of these leading millennials enable autonomy, provide support and accountability. Nothing fancy but it’s the most important position in the organization and they do it extremely well.” A leaderful organization needs empowering, humble leaders. Thoma also gives Spotify as an example of a culturally- focused organization. “They establish a failfriendly culture. Fail fast and learn” is their motto. Or, as Formula 1 driver Mario Andretti famously said: “If everything seems under control, you are not going fast enough.” At Spotify, failure recovery is more important than failure avoidance.
Culture is not enough. You need a mission. These kind of companies really are “on a mission” and their employees are crusaders. Thoma talked about UK-based Kobalt Music, founded in 2000. “In Kobalt music nobody leads, nobody leaves, nobody is disengaged. Why? Because they are on a mission to destroy the music industry.” It’s as simple as that. In this organizational model, the leader is a fearless creative destructor.
Systemic leadership transformation
“What about the old organisations, with a lot of bureaucracy and old systems and structures?” was a common question from many participants. “Well, first of all, such an attitude is self-defeating,” answered Thoma, emphasizing again the importance of purpose and culture. He gave examples of companies reinventing themselves, using x-teams or “internal guerilla armies of game changers”. The effort is systemic. It’s more event-based, a set of practices, continuously cutting the red tape. Thoma cites Dentsu Aegis as an example of systemic leadership transformation.
Another trend in transforming organisations is the emphasis on wellbeing. “When we proved the effect of meditation with hard data at Google, it was fully accepted as leadership practice. More and more companies discover that. For instance at Salesforce. Their new programs about compassionate leadership, the science of happiness and mindfulness cannibalize the older leadership & management development approach”.
Thoma also talked about the focus on all employees and not on a select club of leaders, and the importance of emergent leadership in growing or changing companies. He made a clear-cut case for empowering leaders, providing guidance and learning and focusing on learning and culture. Nothing new there. On the contrary, it is human and team-centered leadership stripped of all its “management” glory and status.
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