Joe Frontiera & Dan Leidl
Michael Maccoby: Paving the Way to Meaningful Work and Leadership
If you passed Michael Maccoby on the streets of Washington DC, he probably wouldn’t stand out. You might notice his quick smile, his small stature, his white hair, and his determined shuffle. But his unassuming style and presence are misleading.
You likely wouldn’t realize that the King of Sweden made him a Commander of the Royal Order of the Polar Star in 2008, one of the most prestigious honors that a foreigner can receive.
It would also be impossible to tell that he studied with Erich Fromm, one of the great pioneers in the field of psychology. You wouldn’t know that he shared many meals and ideas with W. Edwards Deming, who is credited with saving industry – all industry – in Japan, and is one of the fathers of organizational development. You wouldn’t realize that he’s written twelve books on leadership, one of which – The Gamesman – was a best seller.
You’d probably never guess that, at the age of 79, he teaches leadership at Oxford, remains incredibly productive and has ideas for future books. Put simply, it’s hard to recognize a legend when he’s right in front of us.
Throughout his career, Michael Maccoby has focused on helping organizations undergo large-scale change. In other words, he was a management consultant before management consultants existed. From IBM to AT&T, Maccoby has helped many organizations adapt to changing conditions and continue to be relevant. Maccoby has a unique perspective grounded in his education in both psychology and anthropology.
On the surface, these fields seem unrelated and have little to do with change management. However, Maccoby insists, “There’s not psychology without a context”. While all humans may have similar drives, such as the drive for dignity, these are expressed in very different ways depending upon culture. In many ways, this seems to be the focus of his consulting work – helping leaders understand the various motives for change within their own unique context.
When working with leaders, Maccoby’s purpose is clear: “How do we work in a way that is both positive from an economic and human standpoint”?
So, like many of today’s consultants whose purpose is increased efficiency and profitability, Maccoby recognizes that “profitability, sustainability, a good return for investors, the ability to pay good wages, and to invest in the future” are critical. But, the human side is where his more modern counterparts have diverged from Maccoby. He recognized early on that, while profitability and efficiencies were worthwhile goals, employees would disengage if those were the sole pursuits.
For Maccoby, the human standpoint involves “making work that is rewarding to people, that helps them grow so that they are constantly learning and being prepared for the future…and also with concern for the environment they’re in and the community that they’re in.” Keep in mind that Maccoby came to this conclusion in the ‘60s and ‘70s, long before corporate social responsibility was in vogue.
Maccoby’s purpose was shaped in part, because he has seen many companies fail because they “eat their seed core.” In other words, they completely ignore the human element. Instead, “You’re exploiting what you have, you’re not building up your future.” In the end, these companies will not only lose their employees loyalty, they’ll lose their best employees.
One distinct advantage of being in the workforce for five decades, and rigorously studying and socializing with industry luminaries, Maccoby is able to spot trends that most of us can’t see. Maccoby has seen that a certain type of leader, one who has and practices a philosophy, is more likely to succeed. He’s noted that the most successful leaders philosophies successfully answer four key questions. First, what’s my purpose? Second, what are the practical values that are essential to achieve that purpose? Third, how do I make ethical and moral decisions? And fourth, how do I define results? He’s seen that leaders who don’t have a philosophy will have a difficult time creating trust within their organizations. If a leader has a philosophy, and practices it, “people can question your decision on the basis of that philosophy and you build a strong organization.”
Aside from leadership, another trend that Maccoby has noted is the shift in our culture’s values. When he first began working in the late 60’s and early 70’s, he remembers that IBM, like most companies, didn’t allow its employees to collaborate. Instead, they preferred their managers to have one to one relationships with employees. Today, Maccoby asserts, “Collaboration is one of our strongest values.”
This type of macro-perspective has also allowed Maccoby to clearly see current shifts in industry values. He believes that most theories about how the workplace should be built, to how it operates most efficiently, were developed for a bureaucratic industrial world, for workforces similar to the old IBM. These theories, while germane for their time, no longer fit today’s workforce, which is primarily service oriented.
“It’s no longer a matter of just making excellent products”, Maccoby says, “If you look at service productivity, whether it’s a lawyer, accountant, or a doctor, productivity depends on both the producer and the client. The producer doesn’t wholly totally control productivity. It’s the relationship, and that’s a different frame.”
This simple insight can be helpful to many of us in business that are still holding on to the old ways of doing things. Maybe it’s time to start questioning some of the assumptions that we have come to know, and think about how we might build business around this new reality.
To illustrate this point, Maccoby reflects back on work he did with an animal feed supplier in Finland. They were having trouble selling to salmon farmers in Norway. He asked these leaders a basic question, “What do your customers want?” They quickly asserted the standard, business school response: low price and high quality.
Maccoby recalls asking, “Well, can you do me a favor and just ask them?” They did, and they reported back to Maccoby embarrassed. After talking to their customers, they learned that different types of feed make salmon different shades of red, and that some customers wanted red salmon, while others wanted lighter variations.
Makes you wonder – what color salmon do your customers want?
Joe Frontiera & Dan Leidl are regular contributors to Good-b and columnists for Washington Post’s “On Leadership.” Dan and Joe are also co- authors of Team Turnarounds, (Jossey-Bass, July, 2012) and partners in Meno Consulting, an advisory firm on effective organizational leadership.
Category: mensches (men)