Tap into your people’s passion, or get run over

Unleash passion or get run over

What are your people passionate about? Do you know? What might be possible if you unleashed their latent talents? Indeed, what might be the cost if you don’t?

For many years, I worked with one of Australia’s great businesses. SKM, a professional services firm with some 10,000 people around the world, was a global leader. It’s position in the top companies of its type in the world was not based on its size or technical prowess, but on its consistently high level of profitability and year-on-year growth.

What was behind SKM’s sustained success? It’s distributed ownership model, contributing to roughly ten percent of staff being owners of the business, was undoubtedly a factor. The attitude of its many formal and informal leaders was another. Despite our success, we were always striving to improve and invested accordingly. One particularly profitable operation had a practice of building a new service or capability every year. And the business was guided by a set of values that transcended pure shareholder interests. Indeed, a senior executive put it this way: profit is like blood in the body – necessary for life but not the reason for living. Our people – and their collective ethos of excellence and constant improvement – were pivotal to our success and the fun we had along the way.

Such an ethos serves firms well at any time, but particularly now, as industry leaders call for more innovation, warning that “Australian companies desperately need to turbocharge their innovation … or they will be run over by emerging hungry firms in Asia” [1].

Is your company driven to excel?

Today, some of SKM’s former leaders are working in firms where the drive to excel and innovate isn’t what they once enjoyed. Perhaps it’s lying dormant, waiting to be encouraged and unleashed. Or perhaps these firms haven’t been persistent in recruiting the top talent – people with real skill and passion.

What’s your organisation’s approach to hiring and fueling performance? How do your managers feel about people with passion? Do they just want people to put their heads down and do their job? Is passion equated with kooky ideas, rocking the boat and a headache for management?

Ability doesn’t equate to action

From my experience, passion matters, a lot. Giving people the insight and capability to innovate and solve complex problems is important. But know-how doesn’t necessarily translate to application. Certainly, capability matters and, with practice, builds confidence. But the fuel that drives this engine is the passion to self-start and keep going.

Passion is a key success factor highlighted by Ancona and Gregersen in their article on challenge-based leadership [2]. It’s what emerges when highly capable people are attracted to solve cool, edgy and difficult problems. Complementary expertise and a robust problem-solving process is invariably a key ingredient in success, and quick progress can be made through intensive problem-solving ‘hacks’. But it’s passion that helps push through big challenges to achieve something worthwhile. It’s not about profit or power – it’s about beating the challenge and achieving impact.

It’s why start-ups have the potential to disrupt existing industries. It’s not just because they see different ways of serving customers or apply new technologies. Nor is it just fewer rules, filters and cultural norms that otherwise suppress passion and dictate what people work on. It’s because they attract people with a shared passion to do new things.

So much human capital is squandered. In the quest to transform organisational productivity and protect our prosperity, we have seen the enemy … and it is us! Tapping into people’s passions, and building their capability to problem solve, can make a world of difference. As a business leader, formally or informally, the choice to do something better is yours. So, what big and edgy challenges might engage and unleash your most talented people?


[1] John Stensholt (2017) Business leaders call for innovation committees and digital natives on boards, In: Australian Financial Review, 15 Nov 2017.

[2] Deborah Ancona, Hal Gregersen (2017) How to cultivate leadership that is honed to solve problems, In: strategy+business, 30 October 2017