Many organizations live and die by their metrics; net present value, internal rate of return, return on assets, and numerous others dictate what we do and often how we do it. These numbers are an important facet of organizational life; we can’t make smart business decisions without understanding what the data tells us – coolly and rationally. But if we get so obsessed with our metrics that we forget what we are trying to accomplish and why we exist, we often leave employee engagement and stakeholder commitment behind.
Take something simple, like net profit. It’s an exceptionally important number for a for-profit business to understand, but few people get out of bed thinking, “I can’t wait to increase our net profits this morning!” Ask a nurse what gets him out of bed, and he’ll say, “I get to help people,” or “I make sick people well.” Ask an engineer and she’ll say, “I love solving problems” or “I love making things more efficient.”
When we manage people just using numbers, we often get compliance as a result. Tell a sales person to hit a profitability target, and he will, but will he also dazzle customers and build long term partnerships? Will he make customers think the sun rises and sets because of your products? Or will he sell the highest margin product by hook or by crook, without caring about the long term?
Leadership is about building commitment – that long term, get it done, enthusiastic willingness to make our organizations successful because we believe deep down in the cause, in the big idea. It’s a source of pride that energizes our employees and moves them to do more, more often. We will walk through walls if we are committed, but we won’t walk across the street if we are compliant.
If we want to build commitment, we have to paint a compelling picture of the future, a vision people can get excited about, one that they can see a way to support. We have to connect what they do with our larger reason for being, something that’s more meaningful than money and something deeply connected to our organization’s purpose – something that gets our employees out of bed every morning.
Building commitment does not mean that the metrics don’t matter, it means that the metrics and the meaning matter. As leaders, we have to do both well – managing the metrics while making meaning.