The 4-Hat Hack: How a micro change in your employee portal can yield mega results in Leadership
Most companies have internal employee portals - the ones where all employees are expected to or voluntarily sign in everyday. In such portals, it is easy to search for the details of any employee (via their Employment ID no.). Such a search would usually return something like the following:
How can a tweak to this be a vanguard in transforming the organization to one filled with leaders?
Today, companies sooner or later realize the necessity to identify and develop leaders. Many companies also understand the importance of creating more opportunities for their leaders to lead in their organizations. But some fundamental questions stand to be answered:
Fundamental Question #1: How can an organization identify true leaders? Are many in the organization (in different hierarchical levels) convinced that their current ‘leaders’ are truly leaders?
How to separate the wheat from the chaff so that the wheat gets to lead and not the chaff? Identifying the real leaders in an organization is crucial. Leaders preserve and change for the better the core values of an organization. Identifying leaders and their strengths are a precondition to creating a conducive environment for them to lead. A company which takes the effort to identify true leaders will naturally take the added effort to retain and nurture them.
Do organizations have the resources to identify leaders at all levels in an organization? Should organizations go by the predominant practice of hanging on to the word of the supervisors as gospel? Is there a better and an efficient way to identify potential leaders as early as possible and stem their exodus (and by extension increase the influx of new ‘true’ leaders) at all levels in an organization?
Fundamental Question #2: How can an organization objectively evaluate where it presently stands with respect to leadership? In other words, how can an Organization evaluate its ‘Leadership Quotient’?
Does the organization currently have ‘enough’ leaders? Have the currently administered leadership programs created enough leaders? In what parameters of leadership does the company lead and where does it lag? How can the organization set annual targets with respect to leadership? How can the organizations ensure that departments that are highly critical to its future have leaders who excel in the relevant predominant traits?
Fundamental Question #3: How can an organization understand the specific leadership aspects in which each employee has to improve? How can the organization use this information for targeted and personalized leadership development in order to raise its ‘Leadership Quotient’? How can an employee receive constructive feedback and recommendations to improve certain aspects of his leadership?
I am confident in my assumption that a shift towards personalization of leadership programs to develop better leaders will be a general consensus among successful companies. How to identify the areas of improvement for each individual employee? How can an employee be incentivized or motivated to accelerate his quest to be a leader?
Fundamental Question #4: How can a significant positive shift of the mindset of employees about the understanding of leadership be achieved?
How will the employees understand that they are expected to be leaders? How will they understand that leaders can be at all levels in an organization and not just at the top? How can a company make clear its expectations with respect to leadership?
If there is a program or a framework to answer and resolve the above four fundamental questions, an organization can make rapid strides in ensuring that leaders ‘take over’ and row the most significant oars of the organization.
Context – The 4 hats leaders like to wear
Why does a company hire a leader? Let us turn the question around. Why does a Leader ‘hire’ a company?
A leader may ‘hire’ a company for many reasons. He may want to acquire and continuously develop new skills that he believes can help him to bring about a new change; He may want an opportunity to collaborate with the other talented leaders and employees in the company to create substantial value for different stakeholders; He may share a common purpose and mission with the organization; It may be a combination of the above.
Whatever may be the objective, to achieve the objective, a leader will expect to get the opportunity to ‘wear’ 4 hats (the different active roles he wants to play) in an organization:
1. The Visionary Hat: Leaders wear this hat when they are dissatisfied with the status quo and envision a new system, process, culture or any entity that can replace the status quo resulting in a scenario that is far more attractive culturally and economically to the organization than the one that currently exists.
2. The Collaborator Hat: Leaders wear this hat when they are convinced a particular collaborative effort will lead to a scenario where the company is much better off with respect to key tangible and intangible parameters and will make life better for one or more key stakeholders of the organization.
3. The Mentor Hat: Leaders wear this hat when they comprehend the potential of certain individuals to create significant marginal improvements to various aspects of an organization and understand the importance of nurturing such individuals to be future leaders to continue the program of continuous improvement in an organization.
4. The Innovator Hat: Leaders wear this hat when they realize their various skills, competencies and aptitude can be utilized to invent, reinvent or disrupt some particular entities, products, processes or aspects of business that would result in a clearly visible and sustainable tangible and intangible benefit to the organization.
The Different Roles a Leader will like to play
Many industries today are moving towards a scenario where ‘to survive an organization must innovate and to lead, it must disrupt’. In this context, the need for organizations to have leaders who can wear one or more of the above four hats become crucial for both its survival and aspirations.
The Four Hats as four badges of recognition in an Organization
It is important to note that a leader is able to wear one or more of the above mentioned hats – visionary, collaborator, mentor and innovator. But an external observer will be able to observe a few particular hats reflecting the predominant personality traits of a leader. For example, a leader may be at ease wearing all the four hats, but he may be exceptional and substantially differentiated from others in wearing the hat of a visionary. In that case, the observer readily identifies the leader informally as a visionary.
But very rarely, in any company do we formally identify an employee as a great mentor or collaborator. His or her great qualities are known to a few people in his team or project and a few supervisors. It would be great if a manager who is a business unit away or a geography division away and may badly need a leader to lead his team of project knows about this individual.
Let us make an attempt to correct this.
I am proposing a minor tweak in the company's internal employee portal (or the portal which all employees of the organization are expected to sign into everyday).
It is often very easy to search for specific employees. And a search for an employee will return an employee’s information in a basic structure similar to below:
The company can implement the 4-hat IT project to make the following changes.
We add to an employee’s profile one or more of the following 4 badges (hats) to recognize him as a leader who is readily identified as a visionary, collaborator, mentor or innovator as the case might be. An employee might also have zero or no badges.
An employee who has all the above 4 hats will get another hat added to his profile – The All Round Leader.
So the Employee’s new profile page will have a tab showing the basic information and an extra tab showing his Leadership Credentials.
When you click the ‘view details’ or the badge that he has already acquired, the following relevant information can pop up.
Some important remarks about the process of rewarding the hats:
1. Anyone in the company can view any other employee’s leadership credentials. He can ‘fan’ the employee as a visionary, collaborator, mentor or an innovator based on his experiences and opinions about the employee (irrespective of hierarchy levels).
2. Each employee will have only 5 credits per hat each year. These credits must only be used to fan and recommend other employees. So an employee can at the maximum recommend only 5 other employees as (say) visionaries and twenty employees in total.
3. Each employee can recommend another employee only once.
4. The credits will expire every year.
5. When an employee fans another associate, he records ample reasons as described below
Note that the contribution recorded can be viewed by other employees who can then just click on it if they choose to observe the same contribution.
6. The company can give sample profiles of (say) visionaries as examples to guide the employee who recommends another associate
7. The company then sets a threshold number of fans for each hat (say 30)
8. Once the threshold is hit for a hat, the company then decides to mandatorily review the employee’s contributions.
9. Once the contributions are reviewed, the company can make a decision to award a particular hat to the employee. The new profile page will look like:
Using the 4 hats
In what ways can the information resulting from the 4-Hat Project directly used for?
A. Identify Leaders... and?
Through the 4-Hat Project, the company will have the clear record of the number of leaders reflecting different readily observed predominant traits that can be found from the number of different types of hats.
The company must utilize to the maximum a leader’s core strengths, i.e. his capability to wear one or more of the hats.
This would mean that leaders:
1. Must be given an opportunity to lead in projects that are crucial to the company
2. Must be actively involved in developing future leaders.
3. Must be involved in the long term strategy and planning in the different business units and departments depending on the hats that they possess.
4. Must enjoy rewards and benefits that are revised upwards. Here I would cite Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory to be a guide in designing rewards and benefits. The appropriate hygiene factors must be in place to remove dissatisfaction and the appropriate motivators necessary for the high performance. The company may take this further by allowing the identified leaders themselves to hack and identify ‘motivators’.
Among the above 4 initiatives suggested for the company to maximize the contributions from leaders, it is necessary to further stress on the active involvement of the identified leaders to develop other employees as leaders. They must be given the ownership on setting and meeting targets with respect to leadership. Leaders are better positioned to use their creativity to remove barriers in the company and make the company more conducive for the development of future leaders.
B. Frame and Clarify Company’s Expectations on Leadership
It is important to frame and clarify what the company expects from its employees with respect to leadership. This would be a guideline for the employees to emulate and surpass in their quest to be a leader.
A company may publicize sample profiles on what it views as the expected profiles of leaders. The sample profiles may contain the type and extent of contributions which would serve as a useful guide to employees.
Also, the company may have on the homepage of its employee portal the trending contributions, the trending leaders etc. in the form of a dashboard.
The above dashboard would be an effective feedback to employees on the profiles that are likely to be viewed as visionaries, collaborators, mentors and innovators.
C. Measure and Improve the Leadership Quotient
The 4-hat hack actually gives the companies an opportunity to measure where they stand in terms of leadership by the following:
a. The number of all-round leaders currently present
b. The number of leaders classified according to the particular hats
c. The number of associates who need to accelerate their path to becoming leaders (0 hats)
d. The hats in which the company is particularly lacking
The inferences can be an eye-opener.
If the company has a huge percentage of its employees with zero hats, then the company must rethink its fundamental work culture, its rewards and incentive systems, the bureaucracy present, the existing leadership programs etc.
Sometimes, the company may do well in a particular hat (say innovator) and it may do badly in another hat (say collaborator). The company now gets the information that they must set the groundwork for improving collaboration since it is an important precondition to the success of innovations in a large company.
Also, the different business units and departments can be ranked on the basis of the number of hats in each type. It is important to note that some of the departments or units will be in need of many employees with a particular type of hat. For example, a design department in ‘Consumer Lifestyle’ divisions of companies like Philips or GE may need to have leaders with innovator and visionary hats in abundance. In contrast, a HR department in any common company must aspire to have leaders with mentor and collaborator hats. This would reflect in the creative policies that go to create a conducive environment for employees to collaborate and interact. That HR division may also device better reward systems than many competitors resulting in the company’s workforce being more motivated than that of the competitors. Therefore, a company must monitor the number of hats in its most critical departments and units and take corrective action if necessary.
The following are some of the efforts and initiatives that the company must take to improve the leadership quotient of the company:
1. As mentioned in the previous section, the company must clarify the expectations of organizations from employees with respect to leadership. Sample profiles and other mentioned strategies to set the expectations will set a minimum bar that can be consciously placed high enough by the company’s CEO. Employees must then be called to use their creativity to better the profiles.
2. Change the nature of the job description to attract talent. Frame it in a way that is written to attract leaders than to attract just a knowledgeable employee. The job description must reflect the work done by a successful leader in the company and not what is expected of everybody.
3. The company must also engage in an annual collaborative exercise with its employees to understand and kill the different barriers (the ownership can be given to the currently identified leaders). For example, the usual employee engagement survey can be replaced with a hackathon that bears resemblance to the ones run on Management Innovation Exchange.
4. The company must set targets in leadership each year to improve the number of ‘hat-holders’ and must roll out new programs and initiatives that will help it to meet these targets. It must publish each year internal ‘Annual Reports on Leadership’ that will detail the organization’s achievements in leadership.
A sample ‘Summary Annual Report on Leadership is shown below:
D. Target customized delivery of Leadership Development initiatives
The hats (badges) that an employee receives in the 4-Hat project would reflect his readily observable leadership traits. The same leader may have a few fans in the other hats as well. The number of fans may not be enough to guarantee a hat. This would mean that that particular leadership trait is not readily observed by others or it is an area for improvement for the employee. And different individuals may have different combinations of strengths and opportunities for improvement.
Let us illustrate this with an example:
Note that for both A and B, the area for improvement (collaborator hat) is the same but the desired outcomes and objectives from improvement in that hat are different and depend on the hats that the individual has already acquired.
The company can draw up the ten most important desired outcomes and the dominant combinations (strengths and opportunities for improvement) in the company. It can then develop different initiatives to tackle the different combinations (and hence the employees who are categorized under these combinations).
E. Create opportunities to tap the new desires for collaboration
The hats that an employee possesses, his contributions and strengths etc. can be viewed transparently by anyone across the company and across hierarchy levels. This transparent information will lead to new desires for collaboration among different employees – especially among those with complementary strengths.
Let us consider a sample:
1. Different managers may want to bid for the different leaders across business units
2. Visionaries may look for innovators to accelerate their vision
3. Innovators may want to look for mentors suited to their objectives.
4. Visionaries may look for collaborators to bring people together and help drive their vision
5. Mentors may shortlist few visionaries in their unit or domain and help them to refine their visions.
The desires for collaboration are endless.
In a company with thousands of employees, the company must make it easy for the leaders to search for other leaders (usually those with complementary strengths or in other words, other hats). One such design solution to search for potential partners can be as follows:
The C-suite and business unit leadership must work to encourage such collaboration. They must set targets for such collaboration and must incentivize it. They must in fact themselves set an example. They may also give publicity to success stories of such collaborations internally to the organization to encourage more employees with different and complementary strengths to collaborate.
Also, they may set challenging moonshots and exhort leaders to collaborate with each other to collaborate and solve the moonshots.
An example moonshot of (say) a consumer lifestyle business unit may look as follows:
The moonshots are a direct guideline for leaders to collaborate and to take the responsibility to contribute.
1. Awareness about the current state of the company with respect to leadership
The 4-Hat Project throws light on the existing state of leadership in the company. The revelation of a large number of leaders will allow the company to leverage their strengths, take note of their contributions and maximize the outcomes of these contributions. If the number of leaders are revealed to be very low, it is a strong feedback in itself to the organization to take corrective action.
2. ‘Natural leaders’ are identified by consensus
The 4-Hat Project relies on the judgement of the employees in awarding a hat to a fellow employee and is not swayed by the whims and fancies of a single supervisor or senior. Hence, natural leaders will be revealed as a consequence. Identifying natural leaders is a big step forward to the company in having a motivated workforce since the employees are strongly convinced that the identified leaders must be the true leaders. Identifying natural leaders will motivate the company to take measures to retain and utilize them.
3. The Magic of the Mental Filter
In the 4-Hat Project, there need not be any concern on whether hats will be awarded to employees who are (say) visionaries but lack in domain competence or may lack important aspects like integrity. Why? This is because other employees when they fan a particular employee for a hat apply a mental filter to filter out all the employees who are not technically competent or may lack the appropriate character that the company deserves. Only those employees who pass the mental filter are in consideration to be fanned.
4. The benefits of being a grand collaborative exercise
The 4-Hat project is a grand collaborative exercise which involves potentially all the employees in a company to reward and nurture the different ‘hatters’. Such a collaborative exercise will not only result in identifying natural leaders as mentioned before but also ensure that every employee who takes part in recommending hats for others would themselves aspire to be one among the ‘hatters’. In other words, the 4-Hat Project would ensure that employees begin to aspire to be leaders and especially in the 4-Hat paradigm of visionaries, collaborators, mentors and innovators.
5. Breaking down rigid hierarchies
The project would result in breaking down hierarchies whenever not relevant due to participation of employees from all levels. Each individual is given the freedom to view his superior in the 4-Hat paradigm. In my opinion, the freedom to be able to provide constructive positive and negative feedback to superiors is a crucial precondition for ‘Leaders everywhere’
6. Leaders not only at the top
There is a significant shift in the perception that ‘leaders are only at the top’. The 4-Hat hack would encourage employees to see themselves as and aspire to be leaders irrespective of where they are. Also superiors would take a hat-holder seriously however low his or her hierarchy may be. This would actively create ‘meaning at work’.
7. Incentive to connect and collaborate
The project incentivizes people to connect and collaborate with each other. For example, you cannot get a ‘visionary hat’ unless you share your vision with many people and take action. These people would then be able to judge the vision and the related efforts taken. The collaboration would eliminate any redundancy in efforts while brining in new perspectives on challenges.
8. The most significant oars
Since it is possible to identify the best of talent through the 4-Hat Project, the company will place these best of talent to work in the best and most important projects. In other words, the best of leaders will get to row the most significant oars of the organization. The ‘natural selection process’ induced by the 4 hats will be more efficient than just the word of supervisors.
9. A deluge of fresh air to highly talented employees
The group that will be the most enthusiastic adopter of the 4-Hat Project would be the employees and leaders who are highly talented but are not able to differentiate from the rest of the crowd primarily because of bureaucracy and other barriers in the company. When a leader is exposed to a sub-optimal environment for long periods of time, either the leader leaves (or flees?) or the leader in him leaves. This project is indeed a deluge of fresh air to such leaders!
10. Strong feedback to an employee
The 4-Hat Project sends a strong feedback to any employee. The employee understands which of his contributions are noted and which are not; the employee is motivated to pursue greater heights once a hat is accrued to him; conversely, the employee strives to identify the reason why hats have not accrued to him yet and takes steps to correct it; The various feedback signals motivate employees to take steps to accelerate their process of becoming a leader.
11. End of ‘contributions being overlooked’
The contributions of employees are verified, ‘heard’ and certified by other employees. More importantly, the outcomes due to these contributions are transparent. This is a significant improvement to the traditional Resumes and CVs. It makes the common command and control practice of overlooking important accomplishments obsolete.
12. Simple Discovery Process
The easy leader-discovery process helps employees to find like-minded partners in the organization and unleash creativity. They can also identify and collaborate with leaders who have complementary skill sets.
1. Judge me not!
Many managers, especially those who have ‘grown-up’ in the ‘command and control’ organizations will find it uneasy to see the subordinates ‘judging’ them as to whether they are good mentors and visionaries or not.
This may cause them to offer very little support for the active rollout of the program and a few may unfortunately involve in some counterproductive efforts like further tightening the noose of bureaucracy and burdening their subordinates with even more mundane work and hence preventing them from taking active strides to be leaders.
While in smaller companies, this may not seem to be a cause of worry, in large companies with total employees in the counts of tens of thousands and with many business units, this is a serious challenge. The rogue manager may act as a Chinese wall between the rest of the organization and his department hindering the discovery of new leaders. Worse still, these leaders may jump to the ship of competitors.
The CEO must ensure that the managers are convinced about the necessity of having leaders everywhere in their organizations. It is preferable to first actively administer a 4-Hat Pilot informally to managers (before the actual enterprise wide launch) and ask them to actively evaluate and fan their superiors and colleagues recommending them particular hats. Then the supervisors must be given the responsibility to work on the feedback received (via information about the number and type of hats they received). Some superiors and colleagues can then volunteer to convince the group of managers about the benefits to him through this information.
Also it is advisable the employees in various managerial levels are involved during the design phase of the 4-Hat Project wherein after launch, there will be a perception of managers themselves being the co-creators of the project.
Note that if handled properly, this challenge can be limited to being a short term one. In the long term, the business outcomes impacted by the 4-Hat project would be enough to convince any remaining doubting managers.
2. Thinking in the 4-Hat paradigm
Employees initially may not know how to think in the 4-hat paradigm. They would have a biased view of who are (say) visionaries. They form these biases based on their own past experiences. This may especially cause them to overestimate or underestimate accomplishments and contributions and they are highly subjective. It becomes all the more important to have them participate in some test runs before the project is actually launched.
Employees will eventually learn how to think but this initial confusion is an opportunity to get them to clearly understand the expectations of the company from a leader.
I suggest three initiatives:
(i) One method to get employees to think in the 4-Hat paradigm is to publicize sample profiles of ideal leaders on the company portal or intranet. Employees can be invited to comment on the profiles and their opinions on the different high expectations.
(ii) Another method where the employees can more actively participate is by administering them compulsory online timed quizzes and webinars. These quizzes can be tailored to introduce the employees to the 4-Hat paradigm. The minimum pass percentage for example can be set as 90% and the employee can take the quiz (which is randomized and questions are new in every quiz) as many times as necessary. Suppose on an average, an employee takes 3 times to pass the quiz. This is an effective way to ‘indoctrinate’ the 4-Hat thinking into an employee.
(iii) I also suggest that groups of 10-20 employees meet in an informal setting (like having Pizzas) to view videos prepared by the company about the 4-Hat Project. Occasionally there may be some questions regarding the deserving sample profiles to be fanned, which they can deliberate together and answer.
3. Friends and Special Interests
Employees may initially begin to reward their own friends and special interests rather than on company expectations of leadership.
Conduct a test run of the 4-hat project for 1 month. Set targets and teach employees to discover employees unrelated to their teams and evaluate their contributions. This will help them to look beyond their circle. It is also an appropriate time to set the expectations of leader contributions to the company’s required level. After the roll out, moderate the contributions and the activities for a few months and send notifications if very incremental and insignificant contributions are being rewarded (though it is unlikely).
4. Unreasonably High short-term expectations
Another challenge might be the short-term expectations of the program from senior executives. Note that this program is to instil a long term fundamental change in how the organization and its inhabitants work. The program will yield great dividends once the ‘learning’ phase on using the 4-hat passes. To ensure that the senior executives (like the business unit heads) have reasonable expectations from the project, give them complete freedom to propose new design suggestions, modifications or any other refinement regarding the project to improve the outcomes through it.
1. The CEO is the Guardian of the Project
The CEO is the leader of the company and it is an unwritten obvious job description for him to develop and retain leaders in the organization. Though the 4-Hat Project is a simple IT solution, it will bring about drastic fundamental changes in the very way the organization functions. For reaping the benefits of such changes, the project needs the direct blessing of the top leadership team of the company, especially the CEO.
In today’s age where leading businesses not long ago are found to be in the middle of the pack or at the bottom of the heap, it is no longer healthy for a CEO to make judgements based on the thinking of a small jury. In this context, being closely involved with the 4-Hat project would give the CEO a much needed feel of the pulse of the organization and its capabilities.
Hence the CEO must champion the project and must allot his best resources to reap the windfall from the project in the future. The CEO can then form a 4-Hat Team that consists of employees of all hierarchy levels (yes, right from interns) and from various critical departments to take up ownership of the project. Needless to say, these owners must be recognized leaders.
2. Conduct a company-wide survey/poll on leadership in the company
Conduct three series of polls. In the first series, the questions must elicit answers that are only positive in nature regarding the scenario of leadership in the company. In the second series, the questions must elicit only negative answers regarding the scenario of leadership in the company. In the third series, focus on how the employees view leadership and its various aspects. Here, the survey can have drop down lists about the most important aspects of leadership in the opinion of the respondents and the respondent may select multiple options. These polls would provide crucial information to the 4-Hat Team potentially influencing their further efforts.
3. Trigger employee interest in the project right from the design phase
Involve well known and recognized leaders in the organization as well as employees from all levels in the design of the 4-Hat project. Provide the basic outline of the Project. Invite employees to add or suggest new features to the project and build upon the basic idea that is provided in this hack submission. Also, conduct competitions and hackathons for programmers in your company to come up with innovative solutions to implement this project. Reward the best suggestions and provide visibility to the awards across the company.
In this way, the company not only gets to add extremely useful suggestions to further improve the design but will also end up generating interest among employees and leaders who very likely view it as a huge welcome change in the Organization.
4. Pilot test the project in 2 departments
The two departments or units must be chosen such that one is considered to be the most sought after department and one is relatively low on the preferences of an internal employee. The 4-Hat Team must drive the pilot projects with a minimum viable IT solution in these 2 departments, understand the challenges and refine their sketches. Interesting information about the interest of employees, probable adoption rate etc. will be revealed.
5. Interact with the Senior Managers
The CEO and the 4-Hat Team must interact with the senior managers. If you are in company that can safely be categorized as having a ‘command and control’ structure, this becomes all the more important. Clearly specify the importance of the project and better still understand their recommendations on how to have leaders everywhere in your company. Exhort them to provide strong support during the roll out of the project.
6. Create an interactive micro-site
Create an interactive micro-site on leadership for employees two months prior to the project going live. The micro-site can feature the current recognized leaders in an organization, share videos in particular about the 4 hats separately, crowd-source the different barriers an organization faces, interactive games and webinars that would throw more clarity on leadership, a ‘leadership planner’ that can be used to set targets with respect to leadership etc.
Dear Mr. Joel ,
I read with interest your 4 Hat Hack. Very simple , easy to comprehend , yet , thought provoking. My congratulations & best wishes.
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Just a month back, at IIM Kozhikode, we were administered a case study on Tanishq and Goldplus and learnt about your role in it. It feels great to get an appreciation from you! Thank you for the wishes.
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Complete, comprehensive, interesting and an easy read! Hats off and congratulations!!
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Really out of box stuff...kudos bro
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