Last week I attended the IBM Smarter Workforce conference in London. I took my place among hundreds of other HR professionals to hear the latest thinking from IBM on how to get the most from a workforce. The key themes knowledge sharing and collaboration are two areas I’ve been heavily involved in at BP, and rather learning anything new, it was nonetheless pleasing to see that recognition of social media in mainstream corporate business is gaining traction. This is an aside to the topic I wanted to discuss in brief – rocks and sponges.
Former England International Rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward rounded off the conference which in general felt like an expensive sales pitch for IBM’s Connections technology. In his remarks he explained that in competitive sport, and business, “talent is not enough”. It is the ability to absorb and apply new knowledge and information that is the difference between a good and a great sportsman or business person.
You can clearly see where the rock and sponge analogy fits in. The unmalleable, dry rock is always preferred by the squidgy and porous sponge. Thirst for knowledge is at the heart of any winner. Backed up by Charles Darwin’s assertion that “the organism that survives is not the strongest or the fastest that the one who is most adaptable to change”, I feel there are two very respectable sources from which to compose a blog.
As I type this, I’m on an inbound flight to Houston to attend a three-day graduate induction workshop. There’s a chance at some point in the session I’m going to have to stand up in-front of the new employees and say something about networking. I’ve thought often in the build up to this event what I would say and the rock and sponge analogy ties in quite nicely to what I would have said anyway – be a sponge.
But the title of this article is ‘be humiliated’ which draws my focus back to the point I’m hopefully going to make here.
Humility is the number one thing corporations and businesses should look for in their employees and their leaders.
To be humiliated is to be made to feel smaller than you are. As a term it has negative connotations because often humiliation is an attack by someone on your ego. It feels pretty horrible to be humiliated but it’s not such a bad thing, as long as it’s done in the right way. In essence humiliation is a kind of feedback, an opportunity to remember that actually you are a small fish in a big pond. Being king of my little world feels comfortable but it can lead to stagnation if I lack the hunger to learn.
Humility and learning are inextricably linked. In order to learn, we need the drive to do so and an understanding that despite our best efforts, we’ll never know everything. Even in a very narrow field. This seems obvious but at odds with corporate culture in many respects. The need to be omnipotent as a leader is ingrained in our despotic heritage. As a species we seem to crave absolute truths and search for it everywhere, particularly in our gods and our leaders.
The idea of being a “know it all” and the will of the leader being complied with is a flawed system when we recognise that the flow of information from the top to the bottom is tattered and broken. Leaders need to be humble and to trust the judgement of those around them, and if they don’t, recruit those they do trust. It seems bizarre that companies who hire “the best talents” do so and then tie them to the tradition of following the leader like a drone.
“But that’s how we’ve always done things around here”, is a dangerous phrase for any business that wishes to survive according to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. And if, like me, you believe in evolution, you’ll recognise the value of those who have the humility to keep learning, adapting and searching for new ways of doing things.