Sudhir Chadalavada

Yahoo’s decision and the quest to build an innovative and collaborative organization
Yahoo’s recent decision to not allow employees to telecommute and require them to be physically present onsite seems to have divided the business world in to two polarizing “Either Or” camps. Perhaps that’s a false dichotomy. The stated reason for this mandate is that the best way to promote innovation and teamwork is through face-to-face interaction. Isn’t there a comprehensive AND solution that is inclusive and inspiring? In this short post, I want to explore that opportunity, identify the real issue well-meaning business leaders and organizations are grappling with and suggest a solution that is perhaps more appropriate for the times we are living in.
Business World Divided in to Either OR Camps

Yahoo issued a Company policy informing employees that they can no longer work from home. Reactions to this directive have been swift and strong from a wide cross-section of people and can be summarized as follows:

In favor: Yahoo has lost its way and it’s time for tough love. Employees have to earn the culture of freedom and flexibility to work from home that they desire. We need people to communicate and collaborate and be physically present in one place. That’s how innovation happens. This is a necessary step. It is not an attack on telecommuting or working mothers.

Not in favor: This is an arrogant, hypocritical and short-sighted move. It is a knee jerk reaction and a step backwards that is bound to backfire. Yahoo will lose employees that they can’t afford to. The best ones need creative freedom and flexibility; they don’t like mandates. How can you innovate without the buy-in of your people? You can’t force them to give their best. You have to inspire that within them.

What’s the real issue?

Let us not get caught up in the emotion and rush to make a snap judgment on Yahoo or its new CEO, Marissa Mayer. My invitation in this post is to take the opportunity to explore the underlying fundamental issues and questions all well-meaning business leaders and organizations are grappling with. What does it take to have an organization that is engaged and innovative? What does it take for employees to give their best? What is the key to outstanding individual productivity and team collaboration?

In the case of a company like Yahoo these questions have to be dealt with a sense of urgency. I am afraid we can’t fully answer these questions unless we dig deeper into understanding human nature and what motivates us. Clearly an intellectually stimulating work environment along with market success and a competitive compensation that is tied to company’s performance helps. This works well in the short-term for many companies. But as the Yahoo situation proves, it is not sufficient to maintain a high level of engagement and innovation that is consistent and sustainable.

We have come a long way from the command and control style of functioning of the industrial age, when it was acceptable to work against the grain of human nature and operate at lower levels of human needs. Our collective awareness has shifted to the point where fear, intimidation and greed do not motivate us as much as they used to. We seek personal fulfillment and collective well-being even in business organizations. The best and the brightest, we call them conscious leaders and organizations, recognize this and are transforming leadership and management practices to be in tune with the shifting human needs and requirements.

Survey after survey have proved that flexible work schedule enhance employee engagement, productivity and innovation. What inspires them most is a shared purpose with a common vision that is tied to bottom-line business success. Intellectual stimulation alone is not sufficient, leaders have to emotionally connect with and inspire the employees to give their best.

It’s the Process, Stupid

So how does a conscious leader and a conscious organization respond to the situation yahoo is in? First and foremost, a conscious leader works hard to earn the trust of her people. How? By telling the truth when it is hard! She is transparent, authentic, humble and self-confident, all at the same time. A conscious leader has the paradoxical ability to be self-confident in an uncertain environment and humility to reach out and seek input and feedback. How does this manifest in practice?

Take decisive action with people: Identify the keepers that are high performers and committed and those that need to be won over. Engage these two groups of employees and earn their trust by seeking their input and buy-in. Get rid of the cynical and disenfranchised employees who are unwilling to change.

Focus on the process: A conscious leader recognizes that the decision making process is equally, if not more important, than the final decision itself. When we are dealing with intrinsically motivated professionals, we have to engage them in making critical decisions and get their buy-in. So how is an important decision made: to allow or not allow employees to telecommute?

Facilitate collaboration: The conscious leader poses the question, what is the best way to improve innovation and teamwork? She then facilitates a no-holds-barred discussion. Various strategic options are presented and the pros and cons of each are debated vigorously. The best way to promote innovation and teamwork is through face-to-face interaction says one. No says another, the best way to promote innovation and teamwork is through collaboration and this can be achieved with a healthy balance of face-to-face and virtual interaction. So true, agrees another voice, creative work also requires focused and concentrated effort and this is many times difficult to achieve in an office environment, which can be prone to interruptions and longer than necessary water cooler chatter. Another one shouts excitedly, “I don’t care where I work; I am energized by the shared purpose and our team spirit.”

Inspire Execution: A command and control approach will not keep the good employees nor will it help win over the skeptics. When a conscious leader facilitates a collaborative process, amazing things happen. People are no longer attached to being right and wanting their perspective to prevail; they collectively want to do what is right for the company. An objective decision is made and everyone is committed to execution. They inspire themselves and each other to give their best!

Leadership in the age of Transparency and Authenticity

Did Marissa Mayer facilitate this collaborative process before the decision was made? For her sake and Yahoo’s sake, we hope so. Does she have a responsibility to share this information? I am afraid she does. We are living in an age of transparency and authenticity. Being the CEO of a high profile Fortune 500 company has a broader socioeconomic impact. In addition to the execution and business savvy, a conscious business leader today is expected to have diplomatic skills and persistence of a social leader and the compassion and inclusiveness of a spiritual leader. That’s what I think. What do you think?