Dear CEOs: Forget Technology. People are the Answer to Your Problems

Jack Bergstrand, Author, The Velocity Advantage

Dear CEOs: Forget Technology. People are the Answer to Your Problems

When faced with criticism, leaders usually utter some version of the same cliché: “complain all you want, but the view is pretty different when you’re in power.”

Presidents say it about the Oval Office. CEOs say it about the corner office. Shareholders say it about the boardroom.

The sentiment, of course, is that you never know the full measure of a problem until you’re in the driver’s seat.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and so on…

But is the view really that different, depending on where you sit?

The answer, apparently, is yes. But that doesn’t mean these leaders are always correct.

The Satisfaction Gap

We recently conducted a survey of over 1,200 working professionals and found that when it comes to workplace happiness, the lower your rank, the lower your job satisfaction.

For executives, satisfaction rates topped out at a healthy 81 percent. For vice presidents, the rate held steady at 75 percent. Any lower down the company food chain, and things went south.

Directors rate their satisfaction levels at around 68.5 percent, followed by 68.3 percent for mid-level managers. Rounding out the bottom of the pyramid are entry-level employees, who report job satisfaction scores of just 64.1 percent.

Of course, some of these declines are expected. After all, pop culture tells us that bosses are about as popular as mothers-in-law. Most of us like the idea of answering to ourselves — being our own bosses. But dig a little deeper into the data, and things get interesting.

What Workers Want

When you look at large companies with 5,000 to 10,000 workers, the job satisfaction spread remains unchanged, moving from the high 90s for executives to 66.1 percent for entry-level employees.

The trend even holds true for companies with fewer than 50 people, ranging from 82 percent for executives to 66.8 percent for entry-level workers.

So, what’s behind this sliding scale?

When asked what they would improve about their workplace, nearly a fourth of all executives said they would enhance their “technology, tools and resources.” And when asked what they would improve about their role at work, 17.6 percent said they would increase their “ability to learn new things and tackle new types of projects.”

All other seniority levels, from vice presidents to entry-level workers, wanted to improve “company communication and management.” And if they could change their role in one meaningful way, it would be the ability to “increase my power to influence change.”

When asked what piece of advice they would give their bosses, employee frustrations rang loud and clear: “work smarter,” “trust me,” “more transparency and communication,” “stop micromanaging,” “communicate better” and “relax and delegate.”

Differing Views of Success

While CEOs fretted over their lack of resources and technology, everyone else worried about their company’s ability to capitalize on the resources — human capital, time and talent — they already have.

How can views be so different from the cube to the corner office?

Many CEOs seem preoccupied with the idea that more resources and more capital would answer their problems, but the productivity paradox has proved them wrong time and again. In the 1980s, economist and Nobel Laureate Robert Solow discovered that large investments in IT contributed very little to the productivity of established companies.

So, what if CEOs decided to focus on different problems?

When asked what was getting in the way of their productivity, VPs and directors listed frequent interruptions, irrelevant email chains, unnecessary meetings and red tape. Meanwhile, middle managers and entry-level employees cited frequent interruptions, low morale and red tape as their biggest headaches.

Workers, not technology, are a company’s greatest asset. So, why are companies and CEOs squandering their greatest competitive advantage in a spiral of useless emails, irrelevant meetings and unnecessary red tape? Mining untapped human capital is by far the fastest, most cost-efficient way to improve productivity and increase the bottom line.

The Language of Success

Employees want to be heard. They want proper training, clearly defined roles and lots of autonomy. But today’s offices are modeled after the assembly lines of the past, where work was visible, skills-based, independent and stable. These facts are very different from today’s work, which is collaborative, knowledge-based, invisible, fluid and interdependent.

What does that mean for today’s CEOs? Success is all about “bringing together the right knowledge, from the right people, at the right time, for the right purpose.” The workplaces that win the future will work smarter, not harder. They’ll shun irrelevant email blasts, 15-person meetings and red tape that hampers human ingenuity and creativity.

And they’ll start by actively supporting middle-management, where the bulk of the work gets delegated, and where job satisfaction rates are bunched between 65 and 69 percent. Many managers are squeezed by upper management above and entry-level employees below. Empowering these teams with the cross-functional tools they need to succeed will increase productivity and workplace satisfaction for all levels of the company.

Refining roles, reinventing teamwork and capitalizing on employee happiness will also help companies attract and retain tomorrow’s top talent. CEOs should give their teams the tools and authority to collaborate in meaningful, novel and cross-functional ways. Corporate leaders need to embrace what their workers already know: most problems are human in nature, and they can be solved by improving company communication, processes and management.

Whether you run a company of 50 or 10,000, job satisfaction levels will start to increase when CEOs recognize that success isn’t about what they don’t have. It’s about what they do have. After all, a vehicle’s velocity and forward momentum depend just as much on the weight of the passengers as the skills of the person in the driver’s seat.

About the Author

A former Coca-Cola executive and founder of Consequent and Brand Velocity consulting, Jack Bergstrand specializes in improving cross-functional initiatives for Fortune 500s. The principles outlined in his book, The Velocity Advantage, are based on 35 years of real-world corporate experience and success.