A fine mechanical watch is exquisite in its own right. But if you look closer, you’ll see more than just a special timepiece. It is also useful as a framework for leaders who want to improve the quality of their organization’s performance. What does that leadership framework look like? Here’s my perspective…
I’m continually amazed at how unrelated things in life tend to line up with almost perfect timing. Nearly a year ago, I decided I wanted to own a “real watch,” so I began researching popular brands. Around the same time, I was recruited to run Birkman International. Birkman is a 72-year-old company that provides businesses with a roadmap that helps teams work better together and drive operational performance.
These two unrelated events have allowed me to witness the elegance and intricacies that both watches and companies need to run well.
What Do Watches Teach Us About Great Leadership?
Imagine opening the case back of a mechanical watch. Inside you’ll find what seems like a highly complicated collection of gears and wheels. Most of us only open our watch when there’s a problem with its function. The same holds true for businesses — we never seem to look inside until we detect an issue.
In a properly functioning company, each individual, department, and team knows its role. They work at the right pace to accomplish their respective tasks. It is all about coming together at the right time to achieve success. Just like clockwork.
When you open the back of the case and look carefully, you’ll see that it is powered by a mainspring. Without it, the entire mechanism won’t work. The same is true with any company.
The mainspring of the business is the CEO who provides the power needed to drive the business forward. As the mainspring, a CEO is responsible for keeping the organization under a kind of tension that creates motivation, movement, and results over time. However, to ensure consistently high performance, this tension must be released in a regulated way.
This is where the Chief Operating Officer (COO) steps in to serve a critical function. The COO is an organization’s balance wheel. This leader is responsible for distributing the power generated by the CEO, releasing it to the rest of the organization at a steady, reliable pace, like the hands of a watch.
However, unexpected things happen sometimes. For example, what if you accidentally drop your watch? The balance wheel absorbs the shock and ensures that the movement keeps spinning at the right rate. Similarly, unexpected things will happen at work. Regardless, the COO ensures that daily business operations continue to run smoothly and reliably.
A Fine Watch at Work
Once a watch’s power is being created and released at the correct pace, it’s up to the gears and wheels to do their job. But first, these components must be positioned in all the right places. Likewise, employees must be placed in the right position before they can move your organization forward effectively.
For any watch (or any company) to perform well, the real trick is to make sure every “right wheel” works with all the other “right wheels.” This is when the elegance of a great organization reveals itself. It is also when underperforming teams require careful attention. Leaders may need to open the “case back” of their organization and diagnose issues by investigating two questions:
- What is stopping us from achieving the desired results?
- How do we get things running the way they should?
The good news is that, often, new parts aren’t required to fix a broken watch. The same is true in business. Throughout more than 30 years as an executive, I’ve found that organizational problems aren’t rooted in individual employees, but in the friction between all the moving parts. This is why great leadership can make a significant difference.
Making Everything Run Like Clockwork
If you take a watch apart, clean the pieces, reassemble it, and oil it, you end up with a wrist piece that runs properly. Likewise, if we take sufficient time and care to work with our people, we’re likely to find an effective solution to any problem.
In business, “oil” is the understanding of ourselves and others’ needs. This helps us communicate well with people so they can overcome the friction that arises from misunderstanding and mistrust. This gives us the ability to move forward in unison.
To maximize business results, leaders must take time to break down what their organizations are doing at their core. When we define our company’s purpose, bring it into focus with laser-sharp clarity, and provide a psychologically safe environment for team members to communicate, we build a foundation for truly remarkable results.
When we add oil to watch components, the mechanisms come to life. The same holds true for businesses. The latest technologies may increase efficiency, but they cannot reduce human friction within a team. Similarly, a modern smartwatch may be a reliable way to keep track of time, but it does not compare to the craftsmanship of a fine watch.
Effective Leadership Endures
The tagline of luxury watchmaker Patek Phillipe is, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” In other words, if you properly care for one of their watches, it will last hundreds of years.
This aligns with my approach to leadership. I believe executives are merely caretakers for their successors. As the leader of a business now entering its third generation, I take heart in knowing that if we do the work to improve ourselves and better our organization, our impact on the world will be an enduring legacy.
I hope leaders everywhere share the same vision. The future of business depends on it — as does the future of work.