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Business leaders are always looking for breakthroughs that can take their company to the next level. But in such a competitive world, many are reviewing how they do things internally, in an effort to give employees the flexibility and freedom to innovate and stay ahead of the curve.
I like to think that I’ve transformed my leadership style by applying the open-source approach to the way my company, Red Hat, is run.
The “open source” concept started in the technology industry with coders looking to work together collaboratively to build new technologies at a faster pace. It was more flexible than proprietary (“closed source”) software often allowed.
But it doesn’t stop with the IT department; your organisation can also be open – encouraging better employee collaboration and engagement, and faster innovation.
Let the best ideas win
An open organisation should run as a meritocracy, where leaders are a catalyst for ensuring that the business works in an aligned way, and where all employees are empowered to take initiative and enable action. Ideas shouldn’t be considered the best just because they come from the chief executive or someone else near the top.
Leadership shouldn’t come automatically with a job title; it functions most effectively when it’s earned. This may seem like common sense, but in many organisations, it’s not the case.
At Red Hat, we encourage employees to lead when they see an opportunity, regardless of title or role. It’s about removing those levels of permission. If the best ideas are able to win – regardless of where they come from – then everyone in the organisation has the ability to make changes.
Meritocracy, openness, transparency and collaboration
In an open organisation, transparency and collaboration take centre stage. At Red Hat, we use something called the “Open Decision Framework” to guide how decisions that impact other teams, or the company as a whole, are made and communicated. It brings together a lot of best practice from teams across the company and you can find it on GitHub.
By using this framework, we can get valuable feedback throughout the decision-making process and we’re able to be more open about how (and why) we’re making certain decisions.
We also look for opportunities to involve people who want to be a part of cross-functional efforts where possible. Achievements and contributions should be recognised and high-performing team members should be rewarded with interesting assignments.
The opposite of this practice is hierarchical name dropping. Phrases such as “the boss wants it this way” isn’t the best way to foster an environment where openness leads to innovation.
I learned this lesson the hard way when I joined Red Hat and found that, even as chief executive, I had to build credibility and influence before I was able to make an impact. Early on, I issued a request to create a research report, only to be told by the team that they had decided it was a bad idea. They scrapped it.
In many organisations, this would be considered unthinkable feedback for a chief executive, but I soon learned that an open dialogue was incredibly valuable. It resulted in better ideas than I could think of alone. You need to engage in genuinely open conversations with employees if you want your company to be as innovative as it can be.
Embrace the good and the bad
In an open organisation, how you communicate matters. Employees should be given a venue to openly voice their ideas and feedback, both good and bad. Learn from both and use the experience to improve processes in the workplace.
Transparent, honest dialogue is integral to an open culture. It can instill faith in employees. One of the ways that we do this is through a company-wide mailing list. Everyone is automatically subscribed, so everyone can see every message
It’s a place for employees to discuss everything from the availability of paper towels in our facilities, to our strategy, and everything in between. Personally, I love this vehicle because it gives me an opportunity to gauge the temperature of our global organisation at any given time.
Obviously, it requires a thick skin at times, but it’s essential if you want to foster a more transparent and collaborative culture. You will never do this if you don’t allow and encourage employees to tell you that you’re wrong.
For me, the worst response is not negative feedback, but no feedback at all. If your employees aren’t giving you any feedback on your ideas, they’re probably ignoring them altogether.
Share your passion and beliefs
Maintaining a strong company vision is key. If people can share in your beliefs, they will walk through walls with you to achieve your mission. Get them involved in the creation of your company’s vision. Their involvement can help create more ownership and move it from words to action.
The strongest visions are fuelled by passion, which is contagious. If you display it, so will your employees. You can start by adding more passionate words to your vocabulary at work – simple ones that you would use in your personal life: “love”, “hate”, “excited” and “upset”, for example. You will soon notice others communicate with that same passion.
Jim Whitehurst is president and chief executive of Red Hat