What the CEO Knows – and you don’t. V is for Valency

In his book What Leaders Really Do Harvard professor John Kotter describes setting out to work-shadow a number of high profile CEOs – and being astonished by the results.  He had expected that from the Olympian heights of the CEO suite these mighty leaders would be able to manage their schedules in such a way as to give themselves uninterrupted time on the issues of most significance to their businesses.  What he found was that these individuals often flicked from one subject to another with astonishing rapidity, more like a juggler keeping many balls in the air than a chess player shutting out all distractions and focusing solely on the implications of a number of next possible moves.

How then, Kotter began to wonder, did these people get anything done?  The answer, he revealed, was agendas and networks.  The CEO agenda typically had on it there to six major things only.  The must-dos for business survival and success.  They moved those things forward by using their networks.  Intriguingly these networks not only consisted of the obvious formal internal relationships but internal, external, formal, and informal networks of every kind.  They combined all sorts of connections with information, ideas, opinions, advice and decisions, all aimed at moving a step closer to achieving one of those big agenda items.  We have created a term to describe this.  It’s ‘valency’.  Valency (in chemistry at least) is the combining power of an element.  In business, it is the combining power of an organisation to bond together leaders, managers, staff, stakeholders and partners in powerful permutations.

So the question for VIDA leaders is “What’s your valency?”  Put slightly differently:  how good are you at combining the efforts of other people?  And where can you find more people whose knowledge, insights, skills and experience you can combine?  This combining attribute is a lot more than just networking, or being well networked.  That may keep you informed of opportunities, get you in to talk to people you might want to meet or give you a contact in another country when you are travelling.  It won’t make you a leader who can form the emotional bonds that make people want to work together, get results, create a loyalty to the organisation they work for, tell the positive stories about it, whether to co-workers or friends on a night out.

Customer service, net promoter scores, talent recruitment and retention, innovation, becoming truly customer-centric, all these things start with Valency – combining power – and it comes first of all from you as a leader.

What’s the big idea?  Is it the vision, where you are all going to go together?  Or what you are going to build between you all?  Is it the journey you will be going on?  Is it what you will deliver to other people?  It could be the overall purpose of the organisation, it could be to build an organisation on a specific set of values.  All these things act as combining forces.  They bring people together around a common aim, or aspiration. A vision or a set of values.

ARM is the world’s leading semiconductor IP company.  Founded by twelve engineers working out of a converted barn in Cambridge in 1990 it now employs over 4,500 people in 61 countries.  ARM partners (the people who use ARM’s technology under licence in the silicon chips they produce) ship nearly five billion ARM technology-based chips every quarter.  ARM technologies reach 80% of the global population and if you own a smart phone or a car made in the last twenty years there’s quite a lot of ARM close to you.  For many years while this success was being built ARM was unique as far as I know in that its HR strategy was the same as its marketing tagline:  Connect – Collaborate – Create.  From its internal structures to its external partnerships and its ability to bring together the worlds’ leading thinkers in its field, ARM wins the Vybrant prize for Valency in every way.