Unboss Instead of Egomaniacs

Times of change are times of uncer­tain­ty. A typ­i­cal reac­tion to this uncer­tain­ty is the call for heroes and strong lead­ers who bring order into chaos and show the way. On a soci­etal and polit­i­cal lev­el, we are there­fore wit­ness­ing a strength­en­ing of nation­al­ist ten­den­cies and the increas­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of politi­cians whose con­tri­bu­tion con­sists essen­tial­ly in undu­ly sim­pli­fy­ing the com­plex­i­ty of the world by divid­ing it into black and white, good and wrong, us and them and oth­er false dichotomies. In times of dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion, fear also increas­es in com­pa­nies. And while in many places a strong leader is then desired, real­ly strong lead­ers like Vas Narasimhan at Novar­tis do the oppo­site: “Unboss your Company!”

The call for heroes in times of uncer­tain­ty (note also the “Alpha-Mann” mean­ing “alpha-male” in the cap­tion). At least accord­ing to the Ger­man Man­ag­er Mag­a­zin.

This head­line from the Ger­man Man­ag­er Mag­a­zin fol­low­ing Har­ald Krüger’s announce­ment that he would no longer be avail­able for a sec­ond term as Chair­man of the Board of Man­age­ment of BMW nice­ly illus­trates this typ­i­cal reac­tion. There is no doubt that the auto­mo­tive indus­try is at the begin­ning of an unprece­dent­ed peri­od of change. How­ev­er, whether this requires an “alpha-male” I gen­er­al­ly doubt (and refer to the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship) and cer­tain­ly I doubt it in this spe­cif­ic case. And actu­al­ly Ger­hard Woh­land has already said every­thing about it:

As long as you need heroes or cul­prits to explain a sit­u­a­tion con­vinc­ing­ly, you haven’t under­stood it yet.

Ger­hard Wohland

Egomaniacs at the Top Are Poison

Source: Bilanz

With more than 100,000 employ­ees, the Novar­tis phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal group is as large and glob­al as BMW. And even in the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal indus­try, which is still very com­fort­able, there is a lot of change under­way. The cur­rent block­buster mod­el, in which a small num­ber of block­buster drugs rep­re­sent the main source of income, is threat­ened by per­son­al­ized med­i­cine on the one hand and by the increas­ing sen­si­tiv­i­ty of the pub­lic and politi­cians to exces­sive drug prices on the oth­er. In order to mas­ter this upheaval, Novar­tis is expe­ri­enc­ing the great­est pos­si­ble cul­tur­al shock with the 42-year-old Vas Narasimhan as CEO, who, like Satya Nadel­la at Microsoft, is the antithe­sis to the alpha male and acts more as a gar­den­er than as a chess mas­ter.

Man­age­ment the­o­ry only begins with Hen­ry Ford 100 years ago, while the the­o­ry of the Ser­vant Leader is already 2500 years old.

Vas Narasimhan (Bilanz)

Vas Narasimhan sees him­self as an “eter­nal stu­dent in the field of lead­er­ship” (Bilanz). He is well aware that boss­es who are suc­cess­ful in the long term have to take a step back and that ego­ma­ni­acs at the top are there­fore poi­son in his eyes. Instead, he con­sis­tent­ly relies on rad­i­cal­ly rethink­ing the orga­ni­za­tion and there­by unleash­ing the untapped poten­tial of the many employ­ees. He does not only expect small gains in effi­cien­cy, but also quite immod­est “break­throughs that make 50 or 100 per­cent more per­for­mance pos­si­ble” (Bilanz). With the book “Unboss” (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate Link), which Jacob Bøt­ter and Lars Kolind pub­lished six years ago and which had received lit­tle atten­tion until then, he found his guideline.

The Ten Principles of Unboss

The book by Jacob Bøt­ter and Lars Kolind, which is well worth read­ing, has been con­densed at Novar­tis into these 10 prin­ci­ples (which are not explic­it­ly list­ed in the book, but rep­re­sent the essence of the indi­vid­ual chapters):

  1. Focus on pur­pose rather than profit.
  2. Dis­solve the old hier­ar­chy and encour­age every­one to work together.
  3. Trans­form your busi­ness into an unlim­it­ed social network.
  4. Become a great place to work and attract the best people.
  5. Step aside and let your co-work­ers take the lead.
  6. Turn cus­tomers into part­ners and advo­cates for your cause.
  7. Get rid of rigid pay scales and bonus schemes – as well as self­ish employ­ees who care about such things.
  8. Involve peo­ple out­side your com­pa­ny – also in research and development.
  9. Tol­er­ate mis­takes and talk open­ly about them.
  10. Strength­en dia­logue through­out the orga­ni­za­tion through the use of social media.

Until this report on Novar­tis in the Swiss busi­ness mag­a­zine Bilanz, I had nei­ther heard nor read about this book nor about “Unboss” in the broad­er sense. I there­fore appre­ci­ate all the more that it reflects the the­ses of the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship, which was writ­ten much lat­er (2018).

This starts with the basic stance of see­ing peo­ple as intrin­si­cal­ly moti­vat­ed and not want­i­ng to moti­vate them extrin­si­cal­ly through finan­cial incen­tives (7.), which evi­dent­ly does not work. The sin­gle the­ses of the Man­i­festo are some­times very cleary rec­og­niz­able like “pur­pose and trust over com­mand and con­trol” includ­ing the addi­tion that prof­it is not an end in itself but the result of the right pur­pose. Oth­ers appear implic­it­ly, such as “unleash­ing human poten­tial over employ­ing human resources”, which is cru­cial to be attrac­tive as an employ­er (4.), and “diver­si­ty and dis­sent over con­for­mi­ty and con­sen­sus”, which in turn is cru­cial for an open dia­logue (9. and 10.).

The call to step aside and let the co-work­ers take the lead (5.) is found in the man­i­festo as “grow­ing lead­ers over lead­ing fol­low­ers”. And “coura­geous­ly explor­ing the new over effi­cient­ly exploit­ing the known” nat­u­ral­ly needs the learn­ing cul­ture demand­ed in 9. Espe­cial­ly present in the prin­ci­ples of Unboss is the ten­sion between hier­ar­chy and net­work with the ten­den­cy away from the hier­ar­chy towards the social net­work, which is to be found in sev­er­al points (2. and 3.) and even goes beyond the bound­aries of the orga­ni­za­tion (6., 8. and 10.). Accord­ing­ly, this is also the core of Unboss: 

Unboss think­ing rede­fines the com­pa­ny as a social net­work or com­mu­ni­ty with a pur­pose – in oth­er words, a movement.

Jacob Bøt­ter und Lars Kolind: Unboss

The days of alpha male man­agers, as demand­ed by the Man­ag­er Mag­a­zine, are def­i­nite­ly over, but not every­one has noticed it so far (which, in the case of the Man­ag­er Mag­a­zine, may have some­thing to do with the fact that they already bear part of the prob­lem in their name). Satya Nadel­la has already proven at Microsoft the effec­tive­ness of the antithe­sis to this out­dat­ed lead­er­ship mod­el and I hope that Vas Narasimhan at Novar­tis will also succeed. 

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