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weLEAD Leadership Series

Exclusive interview with Ben Simonton

Interviewed by Greg Thomas

 

 

Ben Simonton has managed people for over 30 years, his last position being an executive in charge of over 1000 unionized employees. They were responsible for overhauling the boilers, turbines and auxiliaries of fossil and nuclear electric generating stations for a large electric utility company.  He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and served 25 years on active duty in the United States Navy. Ben served 20 of those years on surface combatant ships including 5 years as Captain, first of a destroyer escort and later a nuclear-powered cruiser. He is the author of the book “Leadership Skills - How to Unleash the Power of People”.  Ben now provides leadership coaching and training for executives, managers and supervisors.  His book is available at his website located at  http://www.bensimonton.com/

 

 

1.       Ben, we just finished reading your book, "How To Unleash The Power of People" and found it to be bold and fascinating. Let's begin with the subject of leadership. Many writers and sources on leadership today divide the roles of a leader and manager. They look at the qualities of a leader being different from that of a manager. However, you look at the role of leadership from a different perspective. Can you please elaborate on this?
 

You make an excellent point. I too spent years thinking about those roles as if they were different. Then I decided to analyze followers and what they follow. Over time, I learned that following is a stable and unchanging process, one that can be precisely defined. I realized that following is the other side of the coin from leadership and this understanding permitted me to also precisely define leadership and how to effect and control it. Having positions in which I was responsible for many people, I was able to test and prove the veracity of what I had learned.

 

What I learned was that whether a boss chooses to act like a manager or a leader, using a particular style or whatever, followers will follow, good bad or otherwise. A manager of people is their leader. Whether or not the manager admits to being their leader is irrelevant. Describe a boss' actions/inactions and the effect on the actions of followers is entirely predictable.

 

2.       In your book, you discuss the term "5Star" and encourage individuals to become "5Star Superstars"! Please give us a basic definition of 5Star achievement and what it can do to increase productivity?

 

In my last executive position, on one occasion we sent a large workforce to a nuclear electric generating station to overhaul machinery. Several of that station's top level managers asked questions of my people on the job and remarked that they were unable to tell supervisors from workers. That workforce consisted of well-trained, industrious, strong and independent, successful and proud supervisors and workers, almost all of them having the 5 traits of a 5Star person.

 

Let me now explain why 5Star people are so important to productivity.
 
First, the vast majority of any workforce, both workers and managers, are followers who more or less decide how to do their work from what they see, hear and experience in the workplace. That is, how industriously or lazily, how honestly or dishonestly, how courteously or discourteously, how caringly or uncaringly and so on to perform their work.

 

Following requires a lot of time, effort and brainpower. In addition to sapping the time and mental energies available to perform work, following results in lower performance if the standards being followed are low or even mid-range. For example, if the boss is perceived as not caring about the workers, workers won't care much about their work.

 

Second, in any workplace there are a few non-followers who only determine how to do their work by using their own standards for industriousness, honesty, caring, courtesy and the like. They waste no time trying to detect the standards implied by what is going on around them, and apply all their energies, mental and physical, to their work. Non-followers may consciously decide to raise their standards if they become aware of higher ones, but they never even think about lowering them.

 

The result is that non-followers are far more productive than followers, as much as four times as productive depending on circumstances. Obviously, any workplace would be far better off having all non-followers. I define non-followers as being independent because they use their own values. Followers are dependent because they use workplace values.

 

In view of this, it is probably not surprising that the goal of my book is to provide the specific tools any boss needs to turn every employee into a well-trained, industrious, strong and independent, successful and proud person, what I call the five stars of a 5Star person. While leading followers to use higher standards is always worth doing, leading them to become independent such that they can never again be led back to mediocrity is managerial heaven. I know because I have been there. I know because I have proven that anyone using my tools, regardless of their personality, gender, race, size or shape can do likewise. I know because I have experienced the great satisfaction of learning that outsiders were unable to determine whether one of my subordinates was a supervisor or a union employee.

 

I may not have sufficiently emphasized the positive effect on total brainpower available to the workplace accruing from people who no longer follow. We've all heard of “two heads being better than one”. Just multiply that by the number of people who no longer leave their brain at the door, and you have the number of 5Star people.

 

3.       In chapter 3 of your book, you draw an analogy from the education and experience of a "mechanical engineer" being called upon to fix a broken machine. You then caution that this standard method of problem solving may work well for many disciplines like accounting or nuclear physics. But you strongly state it will not work in managing people. Help us to understand why?
 
Many disciplines such as mechanical engineering provide techniques and methods to accomplish defined tasks. Supported by reasonably coherent theories, these disciplines allow users to predict outcomes with considerable accuracy. Because of this, those educated in one of these disciplines are able to generally agree as to characteristics of a problem and the elements of a fix.

 

Unfortunately, management of people is not such a discipline. Techniques and methods vary all over the lot.  Practitioners are encouraged to develop a style which suits their personality regardless of the needs of those managed, and coherent theories are essentially non-existent. Undaunted, schools present management degrees, but the holders are generally unable to agree over much of anything concerning the management of people.

 

Why does this difference exist?

 

Scholars in mechanical engineering and in other similar sciences have developed techniques by which they can test their theories while also controlling all relevant variables. If one theory is disproved, another can be postulated and tested in a reasonable period of time.

 

Scholars of management science, in my humble opinion, have simply not had the benefit of such "laboratory-like" conditions for testing, particularly control of the multitude of relevant variables (unions, diversity,  customers, suppliers, changing bosses, changing technologies, politics, etc, etc). Besides, for scholars to get the cooperation of managers, hard-pressed as they are to compete in today's markets, is not an easy task.

 

For myself, benefiting from two revelations, several circumstances not of my own doing and much studying (management, history, social sciences, world religions and how the brain functions), I was able to partially play the role of theorist and tester. My own workplace was my laboratory. Over many years of trial and error I was able to develop a comprehensive set of highly effective and specific methods for managing people, supported by coherent common sense theory. Whether the scholarly community will take notice remains to be seen.

 

4.       Part of the message of your book is the personal growth and change you experienced as a manager. You came to a point where you realized that "great improvement in performance had been caused by my change from an authoritarian to a respectful, listening approach born of the hypothesis that they were the sun and I was the earth". Tell us how this personal change occurred and what it meant?
 
Excellent question. That "they (workers) were the sun and I was the earth" was one of two revelations which caused major changes in the way I managed people.

 

My first 12 years of managing people were filled with very long days. I had been well prepared by my education at the United States Naval Academy and in those 12 years served on five of the Navy's surface combatant ships. I became increasingly aware that although I was always given very high marks for performance, I was unable to improve the performance of my poor and mediocre juniors enough to satisfy my own expectations. I was a firm believer in the use of force to compel performance where necessary, but I really did not have any other tools.

 

At this juncture, I was assigned to a masters degree program at the US Naval Postgraduate school. This was also an opportunity to continue to search for more tools and understanding of managing people. A large book on organizational theory, full of case studies of companies by teams from Harvard, concluded that bosses are not the sun around which their juniors rotate. Quite the contrary! Bosses are rotating around the workers and the workers are the sun, the only producer of the heat and energy bosses need in order to survive.

 

I thought about this "Copernican" theory long and hard and was unable to dismiss it. In fact, it was a humbling experience to realize that the work of testing a new cruiser's sophisticated two nuclear reactor propulsion plant, completed in my last tour of duty, a high tech accomplishment, had been done by my sailors, not by me.

 

The result was that I decided to listen to them as if they were very important, actually more important than I. Whereas I had barely listened to them before, actually spending my time thinking about what my next order would be, I concentrated on listening to them individually and in groups. I heard what bothered them about their tools, direction, training, procedures and the like and proceeded to fix these problems. The more I addressed their complaints, the more their performance improved and the more they cared for their work.

 

Although I did not at first understand that my leadership was the quality of the support which I provided, listening had opened the door to my understanding leadership and what people follow. Listening permitted me to hear that other people were just like me, people with the same kinds of hopes, fears, cares and woes, people who believed in the same values I held dear. This was the first step to development of a comprehensive set of leadership skills and the reasons why they are necessary to the achievement of excellence.

 

5.       Tell us a little about GOTYP and how "group meetings" can be our most powerful leadership tool?

 

Group meetings, conducted solely for the purpose of receiving and responding to the complaints, questions and suggestions of employees are an indispensable and powerful tool for changing any culture to a value-based one of 5Star people. The reason is credibility, plain and simple. Something said to one person can be shrugged off with doubts as to whether the boss really meant it. The same thing said in front of many people in the process of responding to their complaints or questions is met by "I guess the boss really means it".

 

Producing a culture of high values is an important part of the process of creating 5Star people (well-trained, industrious, strong and independent, successful, proud) because high values are what independent people truly respect. In order to create such a workplace, a boss must demonstrate the use of high value standards in making decisions and engage others in that process. The more the boss discusses standards in choosing solutions to problems, the more others will use them. The more the boss asks people to use their own value standards to perform their work and supports that course, the more independent they become and the less time spent following. The more the boss listens to people, the more they engage their brainpower to address workplace issues.

 

There are many rules and guidelines for group meetings such as to present proper body language and facial expressions, prevent foremen from giving orders, prevent preaching to the choir, handle detractors in the midst of meetings, prevent hipshooting, not immediately respond to questions or give solutions to complaints,  not have an agenda, not shoot the messenger, not react defensively or emotionally, take votes on issues, inculcate 5Star traits, etc, etc.

 

In short, there is no more powerful mechanism for creating a value-based culture than group meetings and, to my knowledge, no effective way to replace them.

 

As for "Go Out To Your People" (GOTYP), the purpose is pretty much the same as for group meetings. Wander around the workplace and ask people what you can do for them, how can you fix support issues which make their job more difficult. Answer and resolve these to the satisfaction of the employee. In the process, employees learn how to care for the company's customers and each other. They will pretty much copy how you have treated your customers (your employees). Were you courteous, enthusiastic, full of good cheer and smiles, timely and complete in your responses, professional in your demeanor, etc? Did you apologize for any problems that your support or that of your predecessor has caused the employee? As in group meetings, this is your leadership in action.

 

GOTYP will find issues not brought out in group meetings and vice versa. People will say things one-on-one that they would never bring up in front of a group and will say things in a group which they would never attempt one-on-one. The two methods are complimentary and their individual success depends on the other.

 

In addition, GOTYP is particularly useful for measuring progress toward the 5Star goal and for finding particular groups whose supervisors have not yet gotten with the program.

 

Thanks Ben for an insightful interview!

 

To read a weLEAD Book Review on “How To Unleash the Power of People”, written by Ben Simonton please click here!

 

 

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