The Perfect Boss: Dr. Axel Zein at TEDxStuttgart (Transcript)

Dr Axel Zein at TEDxStuttgart

Axel Zein promotes a new way we manage businesses today: think of business as a sport. In sports, the team is decisive; the team with the best players usually wins. And sports are fun. So what qualifies a manager to be the perfect coach for his team?

Dr. Axel Zein – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

Good evening.

The perfect manager.

Now Benjamin Franklin said: “Two things in life are certain. Death and taxes.”

Now I dare to add a third thing, a bad boss.

You see as human beings we’re getting healthier, we’re living longer lives, we’re going to end up spending 40 maybe 50 years of our life at work. Now it’s almost certain that during this time we’ll encounter a bad boss.

On that note, an American institute conducted a study and they found out that 60% of American workers were not engaged in their jobs.

Now they ask for the main reason why? And it was very surprising because the main reason was not low pay, the main reason was not insufficient vacation, the main reason was not a poor workplace, the main reason why these people were not engaged in their job was because of a bad boss.

Why is it we have so many employees unsatisfied with their bosses?

Well, I think there are two reasons for that.

First of all, the day you become a manager your job changes totally. When you’re an employee, your performance is defined by your own work. And it doesn’t really matter what you do, whether you’re an engineer, on the shop floor, or whether you’re a cleaner.

You’re in a universe centered on the need of one person. Yourself.

Well the day you become a manager you realize your performance is defined by the work that others are doing: Your team.

So all of a sudden, it’s not about what you’re doing, it’s about what they’re doing. It’s not about your performance, it’s about their performance. And it’s not about what you need, it’s about what they need.

See if you’re an engineer, your job is to design products. If you’re a cleaner, you will be measured by the cleanliness you leave behind.

But if you’re a manager of engineers, or a manager of the cleaning force, you don’t have to engineer or clean, what you have to do is to get the right team together, you have to create a high performance culture, you have to make them more productive, and you have to create an environment where people just love to work and love to give their best.

So first of all, being a manager is a totally different job.

Now somebody gets appointed manager and a person doesn’t get it. He doesn’t realize that it is mostly about growing others. That person is going to have a tough time becoming a good manager.

Now the second reason why I believe, people are not satisfied with their bosses, is because we are simply not educated to become managers. Let me take you through some of the concepts we’re learning in university and school.

Well, first of all, we learn a hierarchical model: “I am the teacher, I give the grades and you’ll have to do your homework.”

“But why?”

“Because I said so.”

See if this is how you treat adults in a business environment, you won’t get their top performance, you can’t motivate a team to deliver a top performance just by your authority or your title.

See, people will follow you through thick and thin, if you inspire them, if you do something great. If you convince them or if you care about them. But they will not do it just because you’re the CEO. They will work for you but they’ll not give it their all. Now isn’t that a pity?

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Another thing we learn in school is we learn to look at problems from every possible angle, and then develop the best solution. Often a very theoretical one.

In business, by contrast, success is mostly defined by rapid implementation and not by the best solution. In fact, we rarely have time to even look at the best solution.

Now in schools and in universities there is a huge misconception about risk taking and about making mistakes. You see, if you make a mistake you’ll be punished. You get a low grade for instance.

Now, as a result we’re educated, to not try anything new. We’re not taking risks because we might fail. But failure, ladies and gentlemen, is necessary for success and necessary for personal development.

Take Steve Jobs, he was fired as CEO of Apple. As CEO of the company he founded. What a personal failure. Yet he himself said years later,

“It was the best thing that could have ever happen to me. Because I entered the most creative period of my life.”

And the positive results of that period all those wonderful devices Apple created, stays with us as we speak.

Michael Jordan, the basketball icon said, “I can forgive failure. Everybody fails at something. What I cannot forgive is not trying.”

But we’re not educated to try. What we learn in school is we learn to serve ourselves. It’s all about improving our individual grades, about maximizing our chances to get a good job. It’s all about me, myself and I.

By contrast leadership, ladies and gentlemen, is about serving others. So you see, we’re not educated to become managers. If you want to become an engineer, you go to school, you learn math and physics, you go to university, you get an engineering degree and you’re perfectly prepared to start your job, as an engineer.

If you want to become a manager, you can do the same things, but the day you’ll start your job you’ll realize you’re totally unprepared. There was no class on leadership. Nobody taught you how to create a high performance culture. And by the way what on Earth is that?

Nobody taught you how to pick the best person for the job. Remember, you have to set the team together. How to pick the right candidate? And nobody told you how to get rid, how to let go of the wrong people in your team. How to fire with decency. How do you give straight feedback without demolishing the other person, by actually helping the other person.

You realize the day you become a manager, you’re bound to fail.

So no wonder. 60% of American workers are not satisfied with their bosses. Now what happens when you start a job, and you’re not really prepared for the job? Say, we’re naming you director of a heard of camels, and the director of the camels will address the job to travel with the camels through the desert.

Now two possible reactions in a human being: One is, “Wow, what a cool thing!” And the other one is fear.

Now fear in a manager is a recipe for disaster. Because instead of seeing opportunities, you see threats. And you want to protect all that you have. Your ego tells you, protect everything you have achieved. So you start kissing up, kicking down, you don’t encourage others to grow, you remove every person out of your way that could be a potential threat.

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Now isn’t that wonderful? It’s a nightmare. It’s a nightmare for your business, because in the long-term you’ll ruin it, and it’s an emotional nightmare for the people involved.

But fear in a manager, ladies and gentlemen, comes mostly from the fact that that person is not prepared for the job. That’s why he or she is afraid.

Now what do I advise you to do? I advise you learn as much as possible, learn as fast as possible before you become a manager.

Look at sports, look at team sports. This is a football team. Now for the American friends, when I see football what I mean is soccer. Extremely popular in Europe. These are the players on the field, right. They are the ones working. There’s a team manager, there’s a clear goal to win the game, and there’s a clear strategy on how to win the game. It’s the same in business.

Now every professional sports team has a high performance culture. What on Earth is a culture in business? It’s not taking your team to the opera. Culture in business is the way people behave in your organization. If your culture is based on innovation, most likely people in your organization will welcome fresh ideas.

Whatever why do they do that. So, here are the parallels to business. Everybody in a sports team knows, it’s about winning the game. The president knows it and the cleaner knows it.

Now I encourage you in your business go to the accountants’ team, and ask an accountant if they know it’s about winning against the competitors, if they know who the competitors are, and if that accountant knows that his work counts. That he is actually competing against the accountant in the competitor’s organization.

Or maybe your accountant thinks, “We aren’t competing, sales is competing, there are the ones out there.”

But that’s wrong. Because everybody in a company matters, and everybody is competing, whether you know it or not.

Now speaking of individual performance, what I love about sports is individual performance is highly visible. Anybody can see who the top players are out there, and anybody can see who doesn’t deliver.

What happens in business, we tend to put this veil over the performance issue. We act as if everybody delivers the same performance. It’s funny because people in a team know exactly who the top performers are and who the low performers are.

So when we’re paying everybody the same, what we’re actually doing, is we’re encouraging low performance. It’s not a high performance culture, it’s a low performance culture.

Now imagine, this kind of red T-shirt, Cristiano Ronaldo, the best football player in the world, imagine him having the same salary like somebody else from his team who mostly sits on the bench. In sports it’s not possible. Because anybody can see how good this guy is.

What I love about sports, is their obsession with training. You see, when they’re not competing, they’re training. Three, four, sometimes six times a week.

Now when was the last time you improved your business skills? And how often do you do it? Is it once a day, once a week, once a month, once a year, once every five years?

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Ladies and gentlemen, in a business environment that is driven by change and uncertainty, training has to be an ongoing activity, and it has to be enforced by the managers.

Look, every sports team has a captain, the captain is the leader on the field. And the way they pick their captains, is they choose the best leader. Seldomly, the captain is the best player.

This is Puyol, from Football Club Barcelona. He’s not the best player there. There are shinier stars like Lionel Messi and Iniesta and you name them. But he is the best leader.

Now in business, what happens is we take the best consulter and we make him head of the consulting team, instead of picking the best leader. Often in business, the promotion goes to the boss’ friend, or to the one kissing his rear, causing frustration and stagnation to the rest of the company.

Now this is a concept we have to take to business. If we make individual performance highly visible, this wouldn’t happen.

See in sports, if the team manager name somebody captain, and that person doesn’t deliver, mass media will kill them both. Why? Because performance is highly visible. And all of a sudden, things fall in place.

A cool thing they do in sports, is when they win. Boy, they celebrate like there’s no tomorrow. And this is something we should do in business. You know, there should be room for joy.

When a team delivers top performance, you have to reward them with money, hug their soul, celebrate with a team not only because they deserve it, celebrate because it makes them stronger.

So what I’m saying, is take these five concepts from sports and put them to business: The high performance culture; the extremely visible individual performance; the obsession with training; the way they pick their true leaders and not the fake ones. And the way they celebrate.

Now somebody might say, “Hm, the perfect boss, come on, that doesn’t exist, because after all nobody is perfect.”

And you’re right. Nobody is perfect.

But when it comes to goal setting, I’d rather try and be a perfect boss, than to strive to be a mediocre one. And speaking of excellent managers, this, ladies and gentlemen, is Pep Guardiola. He’s former team manager of the Football Club Barcelona.

During the four years he was there as a team manager, his club entered sixteen competitions out of which they won fourteen. They won the competition not the game. A stellar performance.

Now what I’ve found very fascinating, is what Mr. Guardiola told his team, the first time he met them. He said:

“I don’t expect you to win titles. I expect you to give it all. And when you’ve given it all you’ve got and we lose, I will defend you. But if you don’t give it all you’ve got, then you’re in the wrong team.”

What a beautiful thing to say. Because ladies and gentlemen, for imperfect human beings like us, giving it all we’ve got, is the highest level of perfection we can achieve.

When we’ve given it all we’ve got, we are as perfect as we can be. So being a perfect manager, at home, at work, at whatever you do, at whatever we do, lies only within ourselves.

The perfect manager, the perfect boss, lies within you.

Thank you.

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