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Q-and-A with Marta Wilson, author of “Everybody’s Business”

5 min read


Marta Wilson, CEO of Transformation Systems, is the author of “Everybody’s Business: Engaging Your Total Enterprise to Boost Quality, Speed, Savings and Innovation,” her latest book. I asked her about the lessons of her book, namely how companies can build organizations that are successful in a sustainable, long-term way.

Early in the book, the key theme is noted: “Find the smallest step with the biggest return.” How is this bucking the conventional wisdom of strategy and management? Regardless, why is this perspective an improved way of looking at the situation?

In today’s era of big ideas and desire for instant change, it is essential to remember that small steps can produce big returns. My point is that one person taking one action can have organizationwide value. In addition to strategy and management, which are necessary to lead, we need to be continuously looking for the pockets of insight in our organizations. All individuals hold special power to make things happen, and as leaders, it’s our job to unleash their potential.

It’s all about accessing, expanding, uniting and guiding that energy. This puts total systems thinking into action. The first step to unleashing the potential of individuals to improve our total organization is to get some concept of our enterprise as a working system, a total system. This provides a starting point for how one change in one area can affect people and processes throughout the organization. With knowledge of our total system, we can all be transformational leaders who guide others to create real and lasting improvement by engaging people to be individual agents of change.

Taking small steps, even those with big returns, can be difficult for many people, given the human instinct to demand sweeping, instant change. What are the toughest aspects of getting buy-in?

Resistance to change is human nature and a predictable challenge to getting buy-in. So, my advice is: “Communicate. Educate. Elevate. Then, repeat.” By that, I mean be inclusive. Engage diverse interests and activities by establishing goals and fostering shared awareness. Imagine you are the conductor of an orchestra keeping operation of the whole in mind, even as you tend to the particulars of day-to-day work.

As transformational leaders, we must be role models acting in ways motivated by what’s best for the organization and its members, rather than what is easy and expedient. This includes co-creating a vision for the future and a collective sense of mission as well as inviting everybody to take those small steps. Engagement always starts somewhere, and each one of us has the choice and the power to ignite people’s energy. We as leaders can take small steps that engage everybody in achieving big, bold goals.

How important are training and professional development in bringing changes needed for sustainable, continually improving companies? Are there “ready-made” companies, or do they all require some element of training and development?

Education, training and development are critical for every enterprise. I call this the “learning front.” When other fronts such as planning, measurement and technology get out ahead of the learning front, the lifeblood of the organization starts to wilt and wither. Are people learning? This is an important question and an important metric. If other indicators, such as profitability, efficiency and productivity, are measured and managed exclusively with little or no attention to the “learning front,” chaos unfolds.

As transformational leaders, we are responsible for putting learning systems in place in our organizations. With a sound system of learning, each time individuals choose to master new levels of skill or grow in new areas, they venture out and conquer new frontiers for themselves, which inevitably benefits the organization. Learning is the way we evolve as people, as leaders and as organizations of excellence.

Manufacturers talk often of a skills gap in the U.S. In your view, do nonmanufacturing service or knowledge industries face a skills gap that could leave them unable to instill the bottom-up, empowered workforce for which your book advocates? How can we avoid such a problem?

Yes, and I see it as an opportunity instead of a problem. If we want individuals to be agents of change, we must give them the knowledge and the tools to be change agents. To close the gap, we can educate and train our workforce to develop personal, interpersonal and enterprise mastery. This requires us to be transformational leaders and provide the resources to promote growth.

We must encourage everybody to achieve more than what’s thought possible by communicating high but realistic standards, as well as inspire folks to think for themselves, question their own assumptions and approach problems in innovative, collaborative ways. Also, we must pay special attention to people’s personal needs for achievement, providing caring, compassion and empathy. In Chapter 5 of “Everybody’s Business,” titled “One: Developing the Workforce Individually,” I address this key leadership issue and share solutions for building an empowered workforce.