We need to have a discussion on your work ethic.”

This message was the response sent in reference to an email that was mailed at 9:20 pm on a recent evening. The receipient was still at her desk toiling away. The sender, her boss, was already home.

When I saw this woman a few days later, I asked her to tell me about the work ethic conversation her manager mentioned. She said, in a matter of fact manner, “Oh, she does not want me working that late every night.”

Nothing was mentioned about the department being short one person, or, that the one person they were short had left because of long hours.

Getting close to the problem

I asked her what would she do if she were in the position to bring in that one person to solve this conundrum. She methodically walked me through her department’s organizational design and made a pretty good business case on the fly. I was impressed, to say the least.

Business and team success are determined by how well the inner workings of the organization are in sync.

There is no mystery behind that. The closer you are to a situation, the better you are able to come up with an answer. Real answers are hard to come by in the conference room where people making the decision far removed.

That conversation aligned with a recent article at Harvard Business Review article titled How SAP Labs India Became An Innovation Dynamo.

A gentleman by the name of V.R. Ferose became the managing director of SAP Labs India at the ripe old age of 35. He was the youngest ever managing director. He managed a workforce that was 4,000 people strong.

His primary task in his new role was to shore up employee morale, because the attrition rate had reached a painful 19 percent back in 2009. Leadership’s mandate to him was to reduce employee turnover to below 10 percent by 2012.

New leadership model from a different mindset

Rather than leaping into putting together “engagement programs,” Managing Director Ferose took time to get to the root cause of employee dissatisfaction. One of the things that kept popping up was that the company was unresponsive to employee needs. They were complaining about the lack of amenities such as child care facilities on campus and the stifling bureaucracy which, for instance, made expense reimbursement a time-consuming process.

This new-age CEO felt it was not trying to find ways to make employees more engaged. He felt that workers already know what will make them happy and more engaged. No, Ferose felt that his role was to give employees the freedom to test and deploy their own solutions.

He also directed the organization to ditch its top-heavy corporate culture, allowing bottom-up creativity and innovation to blossom. He wanted his workforce to experiment with bold new ideas during their work time. In addition, he wanted all managers to free up time for their staff members to work on solving the very problems they were complaining about.

Ferose directed his employees, who were primarily engineers, to expose themselves to new environments that would expand their existing perspectives, unleash their innate ingenuity, and accelerate their learning.

This management style caused many employees to self-organize to work on many innovative solutions to boost productivity. To handle the expense reimbursement problem, the employee teams developed, piloted and rolled out a system to expedite the entire expense reimbursement process. Turnaround time is now within 24 hours.

How did they solve the day care issue? A group of frustrated working mothers developed a day care program. The vast majority of these initiatives utilized existing resources, thereby limiting budget exposure.

A new approach and its outcome

During Managing Director Ferose’s first 12 months as head of SAP Labs India, empowered employees successfully implemented a total of 52 new morale-boosting projects.

This new way of empowering employees compressed the whole concept-to-market cycle into 90 days versus the two years it would typically take. Their organizational design was based on managing each project as if they were running a start-up.

All of this “innovative thinking” built on employees solving their own problems has created tremendous results.

Within two years of Ferose taking over, attrition at SAP Labs India dropped from 19 percent in 2009 to 10 percent in 2011, to 7 percent in 2012. His organization now ranks No. 1 in employee satisfaction within SAP’s global network of 15 R&D labs.

In the annual ranking of best employers in India, SAP Labs India has risen to No. 4 in a very short time. All this success caused headquarters to take notice; now, more strategic projects are shifted Ferose’s way.

What I like most about this story (outside of the employee empowerment) is that among global corporate leaders, Ferose is rare because he didn’t graduate from a prestigious university, nor does he have a MBA. That may have seemed like something that would hinder him in rising to the top at SAP.

Call in the experts

Ferose’s wise leadership allowed him to approach a problem from a totally different perspective that had nothing to do with education or learned knowledge. He was smart enough to bring in the experts. Those experts knew what the problem was, and, they damn well knew how to fix it.

Yes, those experts within your organization are the ones that are so often overlooked.

Always remember that the further you get away from the heat, the colder you become. If you want a situation resolved, get as close to the problem as you can. That’s where you’ll find the real experts, and they may already have a solution.

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