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Do It with People, Not To Them: Share the Power

August 10, 2014
servant-leaders_photo It seems like almost yesterday when organizations in both the public and private sectors were pumped with such concepts as servant leadership, values and ethics, and shared (distributed) leadership. Indeed, your correspondent did his Master’s thesis in 1999 on shared leadership.

Dateline: the Nineties, when a wide variety of leadership thinkers and practitioners advocated the integration of these concepts–and more–into the daily operations of organizations, small and large, public and private. These concepts, it needs to be stressed, were not new. Servant leadership dates back to Robert K. Greenleaf, and more recently Peter Block. Shared leadership goes back even further to Mary Parker Follett who was called the Mother of Modern Management by the late Peter Drucker.

And then something happened. Some call it globalization, though in reality we’re talking about pseudo globalization and more the distribution of wealth through the offshoring of jobs to far-flung places, concurrent with the race-to-the-bottom of the wage barrel, all the while the disparity of wealth continues to grow in many Western countries.

While much handwringing is going on as commentators of various political persuasions and economic orthodoxies debate what is happening in society at large, there are companies and corporate leaders who do get it and who are actually trying to simultaneously compete globally while providing their employees with challenging work, relative job security and decent incomes.

Saretsky Meet Gregg Saretsky, a leader who puts his money where his mouth is when it comes to engaging employees.

Saretsky has been the CEO of WestJet since 2010, following the sudden departure of Sean Durfy who was expected to succeed founder and CEO Clive Beddoe. Before joining WestJet, Saretsky worked at Alaska Airlines and before that Air Canada. However, he has airlines in his blood, having grown up in a family with roots in the industry.

WestJet, a non-unionized company of some 10,000 employees based in Calgary, Alberta, has only been around since 1996. However, in that short span of time the company has consistently demonstrated a commitment to superior customer service and innovation (almost alien concepts to the airline industry). In July 2014, WestJet reported its 37th quarterly consecutive profit. Not too shabby for a regional airline competing in a turbulent market.

When the company recently introduced its Encore service Saretsky knew that it was a major change to the company’s business model, which has been based on a single type of airplane (737). Encore is a regional air service using a separate operating certificate. In short, employees working for Encore have a different wage and benefits structure. What’s fascinating about this story is that when put to a vote, 91% of employees backed the new service. A sharp contrast to this is Loblaws, Canada’s largest grocer, which has slyly used the introduction of new legal separate entities as a means to break its unions and lower the wages of employees.

Encore hasn’t come without any problems. WestJet created what’s called the Framework for Fairness, a program aimed at minimizing the impact of the new service on some employees, such as those working in remote communities.

westjetdis I’m reminded of my three decades with the Public Service of Canada, during which I worked both as an economist and senior project manager in the areas of leadership development and organizational renewal.

It was not long after a major federal government departmental reorganization in the early nineties, with my organization being merged with pieces of three other departments, that I approached my boss, Louise, to propose some ideas on how in our region to integrate a new, huge federal department with a very broad mandate.

Louise was second in charge of the organization (later moving to the nation’s capital to take on bigger challenges at a national level), but the strategic thinker on the executive board, composed largely of males. Dateline: 1996.

The short version is that I was tasked to bring together a cross-section of the new regional organization to form a steering committee, which in turn organized a series of 19 one-day sessions in six cities around the province. It was actually a workplace labor inspector, part of our committee, who suggested at one meeting that instead of trying to bring 1,700 employees to one or two central points for a series of sessions, that we “Bring it to the people.”

What was called Learning Works! was emulated by other parts of the organization, which spanned Canada from coast to coast, some 28,000 employees in over 600 points of service.

The only reason this initiative happened and why it was a booming success was because of Louise’s vision and the trust she placed in not just me but more importantly dozens and dozens of employees who were essential for the successful rolling out of Learning Works! Moreover, part of the power behind this initiative was that the head of the union was invited at the outset to be part of the planning, and who was also given equal floor time with Louise at each learning event.

This was shared leadership at its finest in the Public Service of Canada. Unfortunately, as alluded to above, much has changed in a short span of time, both in the public sector and in business.

Corporate leaders such as Gregg Saretsky can give Canadians some degree of comfort that he understands the importance of sharing power with employees and how it dovetails with a company’s ability to be competitive in a brutal market.

Take some time to reflect on how you share power, whether at work, in the community or at home.

It seems to me that whereas power usually means power-over, the power of some person or group over some other person or group, it is possible to develop the conception of power-with, a jointly developed power, a co-active, not a coercive power.

– Mary Parker Follett

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