08/03/2012 10:39 am ET Updated Oct 03, 2012

About Leadership: Give and Take

Many big companies have formal networks that meet regularly to share best practice. Everyone (well, almost everyone) wants these to be more than talk shops, or occasions for going someplace nice to spend a few days with your colleagues from the rest of the world. In big companies networks can be serious business leaders, but just as often comprise technical leaders from around the world, or marketers.

There is a curious phenomenon about networks that I have seen very often. When a group of technical or business leaders get together for a network meeting, trying to learn from each other, I would naively think that everyone has a big motivation to take ideas from the others. After all, if I am running retail shops in Australia and I can hear of an idea that worked well in the US Midwest, I might be able to improve my performance, and reward, by getting back to Australia and implementing it ASAP.

At the same time, there doesn't seem that much motivation to give. I have done something interesting, it is making money for my business unit, but what is my incentive to help you do the same thing in your business unit?

But this naïve view of networks doesn't happen in practice. Indeed, just the opposite happens. Everyone seems to want to give, and no one seems all that interested in take. I have done something that is very cost effective, or I have found a much better maintenance management system, or I have found a way to increase sales of coffee and doughnuts by 35%, and I can't wait for the next network meeting to get up and tell all my peers about it. But guess what? They are sitting there impatiently waiting their turn to tell about the wonderful thing they have done.

If you grew up in a US public school years ago (maybe they still do this) a part of the primary school class time was something called 'Show and Tell.' My father went to China and brought back this exotic doll that sings happy birthday in Chinese. Whatever. Funnily enough, I can remember several things that I presented for Show and Tell, but I can't recall a single thing that anyone else ever showed.

And that is the way it is with networks. So something has to be done to break this syndrome. To me, the way to do this is to introduce a lot more structure into the year. In effect, a network has to have a performance contract with the company. It can be pretty simple. We are the retail convenience store network, and this year our overall goal is to use best practice to get our coffee and doughnut sales around the world up by 30%. We are the maintenance managers, and our goal for this year is to improve reliability by 1 percentage point across our operations, while keeping costs flat. This is accountability with a strong focus not just on capital but on operational excellence.

Then the network meeting can be structured around looking at ideas to fulfil the performance contract. And acting on those ideas. This is the way to break through the give and take syndrome, to derive real value from the networks, but it takes some leadership and structure to make it happen.

One final point: The senior executive responsible for factories or retail shops -- whatever the network is 'working' on -- needs to turn up. Not every meeting, maybe not for the whole meeting, but enough so that he can both set context and hear progress. After all, accountability must involve someone outside the network itself.

About Leadership:
About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership - essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?