Monday, May 20, 2019

How Do Leaders Build Cultural Clarity And Alignment? - Part #2

Some days we get so busy solving problems as leaders and managers that we forget that most people will shift their thinking only after new behaviors have led to results that matter to them and have been validated by others. The best leaders understand this and recognize that building cultural clarity and alignment is playing the long game. As Jon Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen and Caroline Kronley in their article,“Cultural Change That Sticks,” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2012, note “deeply embedded cultures change slowly over time.” We have to be patient then with this level of work.

Still, I have seen alignment take place over the course of my career. In these organizations, leaders make some unique choices. First, results matter within these organizations, i.e. qualitatively and quantitatively at all levels of the organization, not just at the senior team level. You can visit with front line staff or the senior most people and all of them are talking about outcomes and results. 

Second, there is “line of sight” within these organizations. My daily actions and my quarterly goals all connect with the current strategic plan and with the overall mission. Here, alignment is defined as shared beliefs and shared behaviors which achieve a collective goal, outcome, or result. It is not a vague  idea but instead is an executable reality and choice.

Next, the leaders of these companies agree with John Doerr in his book, Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs (Portfolio, 2018) when he writes: “Healthy culture and structured goal setting are interdependent. They’re natural partners in the quest for operating excellence.”

From my perspective, there also is one more small but important difference in these organizations, namely there is a clear difference by all involved about what are committed goals, i.e. ones tied to metrics and well defined action plans, and aspirational goals, which reflect big picture, higher-risk, more future-tilting ideas and efforts.

This week, I encourage you to sit down with your team and discuss the following two questions: Do we know the difference between committed goals and aspirational goals as a group? Are we clear about who is working on which ones? This level of dialogue and the resulting clarity will make a big difference this coming summer.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, May 13, 2019

How Do Leaders Build Cultural Clarity And Alignment? - Part #1

When I step back and look at the big picture, I hear and see three things from leaders at this time period. First, we live in world filled with contradictions and we are craving “islands of sanity”, using a Margaret Wheatley term, in the midst of it all. We live in a time period of profound and deep loneliness. It is not just lonely at the top of the organization. It is now lonely everywhere. We also live in a time period where many people are feeling profound and deep discouragement. This in combination with being over booked, over extended and over committed has resulted in many feeling like they and their teams are “stuck in the weeds.” However, in the midst of all of this, we, as leaders, are suppose to create, maintain and preserve cultural clarity and alignment.

Second, many leaders are coming to the same conclusion as John Doerr in his book, Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs (Portfolio, 2018) that “alignment is rare.” Studies suggest that only 7 percent of employees “fully understand their company’s business strategies and what’s expected of them in order to help achieve the common goals.” Furthermore, notes Doerr, a lack of alignment, according to a poll of global CEOs, is the number-one obstacle between strategy and execution.

Third, “cultural inclinations are well intrenched, for good or for bad”, explains Jon Katzenbach, Ilona Steffen and Caroline Kronley in their article, “Cultural Change That Sticks,” Harvard Business Review, July-August 2012. Myself and many others are seeing this on so many levels.

Brene’ Brown in her book Braving The Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (Random House, 2017) writes that “research participants described a diminishing sense of shared humanity. Over and over, participants talked about the concern that the only thing that binds us together now is shared fear and disdain, not common humanity, shared trust, respect, or love.”

With the above in mind, we, as leaders, know that we must visit more with people at all levels of the organization, understand their perspective, and involve them in the planning for the future. We also know that changing just a few critical behaviors within the culture is a lot of work.

When I step back from all my meetings and reflect on where I see cultural clarity and alignment taking place, I note two small, but very important things taking place. First, the leaders who are visiting with people at all levels of the organization are somehow creating safe spaces for discussion. With so many people feeling like they are outside their comfort zone, moving through a trough of chaos which at times is feeling like either the pit of despair or a trough of continual panic, these safety zones are so important for leaders and followers to share, be heard and dialogue. At times, I think this happens best because of a good strategic level question that is timely and worth exploring, but also because of the presence of a facilitator. However, in the end, I think it really comes down to committing the time and resources to do it on a regular basis.

Second, I believe the leaders who are creating cultural clarity and alignment honor the strengths of their existing culture. In particular, I have noticed that the leaders within those organizations are clear about two things, namely that they can articulate the strengths of their company culture, both operationally and strategically, plus they can articulate what alignment means within their organization.

This week, I encourage you to reflect on these two questions: What are the strengths of your culture? What does alignment look like within your organization? Your answers will be helpful to you and many others in the coming days and weeks.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, May 6, 2019

What Is The Connection Between Excellence, Culture And Strategy? - Part #4

Picking up where I left off last Monday about connecting culture, strategy, operational excellence and customer intimacy, leaders next must provide psychological safety with candid feedback. When psychological safety is present, people feel free to “speak truthfully about problems without fear of reprisal”, as Gary P. Pisano wrote in his article, “The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures” in the January-February 2019 issue of the Harvard Business Review. 

From my perspective, in integrated organizations, psychological safety is a two-way street. If it is safe for me to criticize your ideas, then it must also be safe for you to criticize mine. However, as Pisano points out, many leaders often confuse “politeness and niceness with respect”. They forget that “accepting frank criticism is one of the hallmarks of respect.” At the same time, the best leaders know and role model clarity that “there is a difference between being candid and just plain nasty.”

Second, leaders, who want culture, strategy, operational excellence and customer intimacy to be integrated within their organization, encourage collaboration but know it comes with individual accountability. As Pisano notes, well-functioning and integrated organizations “need information, input, and significant integration of effort from a diverse array of contributors.” Employees seek help from others and they have a sense of collective responsibility. 

However, these same leaders do not confuse collaboration and consensus. As he explains, “… consensus is poison for rapid decision making and navigating complex problems associated with transformational innovation.” In short, a culture where there is collaboration and accountability is one “where individuals are expected to make decisions and own the consequences.”

Third, the outcome of this level of integration is often a flat organization, i.e. on the organization chart. What the best senior executives know is that flat organizations need very strong leadership. In these kinds of companies, people are expected to take action, make decision, and voice their opinions. 

Yet people must understand that within flat organizations, decision-making is often decentralized. Therefore, people need access to relevant information to make these decisions. They also must understand strategic priorities and direction. 

My challenge to you this week is to reflect on all of the above blog entries on this subject, take your answers from last week, and then to discuss it all with your team. It is time we sit down collectively and explore big ideas. We need to find common ground and common perspective if we are going to be successful during the next 12 - 18 months.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, April 29, 2019

What Is The Connection Between Excellence, Culture And Strategy? - Part #3

During the last six to nine months, many senior executives have wanted to visit with me about the subject of operational excellence. All of them know they need it and many wonder what it actually means and how to improve it. 

Whenever this subject surfaces, I think back to Tom Peter’s definition of operational excellence which defines it as a workplace philosophy where problem solving, teamwork and leadership result in on-going improvements or continuous improvements in the organization.

Many executives focus on this subject now because they want their operations to be more efficient or effective. Strategically this idea is translating into a high degree of centralization and standardization within large companies.

Not too long ago, I was asked by a CEO to sit down with each of his direct reports and to ask them the following question: What is operational excellence? And how can we get better at it? 

Later, I presented a summary of all of these one to one meetings to the senior team. What we discovered as a group is that everyone was all over the map about what it meant and how to get better at it. There was no common ground.

After listening to the entire summary and the in-depth dialogue on the subject, the CEO spoke. “First, I don’t think we can get better at this until we all hold a common definition of the term, operational excellence. But more important, I don’t think we can improve operations without having a high degree of customer intimacy. For operations to get better, we need to know our customers’ needs better. It is not efficiency for efficiency’s sake. It is efficiency and effective at the operational level so we can better serve the customer. To take the customer out of the equation is not going to make us better. It could actually make us misaligned with what they currently need and what they might need in the future.”

It was a “blinding flash of the obvious”, using an old Tom Peters phrase, for all of us in the room. Customer intimacy, in its most basic terms, means having the capacity to offer highly tailored or personalized products and services to meet customer needs which yield long-term loyalty, organic growth and increased profits. Furthermore, when culture, strategy and operational excellence are all connected to customer intimacy then the organization can be successful both strategically and operationally. 

So what can a leader do to connect all four of these concepts together?

First, they should read and discuss the following article with their team: “The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures” by Gary P. Pisano. January-February 2019 issue of the Harvard Business Review. Once they have done this, they can have a tolerance for failure but no tolerance what so ever for incompetence

As all of us know and the above article supports, some days things do not go as planned, and good ideas don’t work. Think Apple’s MobileMe, Google Glass, and the Amazon Fire Phone. The best organizations tolerate failure but do not tolerate incompetence. They recruit the best, and they train them. Then, they set high performance standards for their people, creating a culture that simultaneously values learning from failure and outstanding performance. 

A good start is for senior leadership to articulate clearly the difference between productive and unproductive failures. For example, productive failures yield valuable information relative to cost. From these, we celebrate the learning, not failure. When we do the above, we build a culture of competence. This only happens when there are clearly articulated standards of performance.

Second, leaders need to have a willingness to experiment within highly disciplined and defined parameters. The minute you embrace experimentation, you must be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. They come with the territory. Organizations that experiment, select those experiments based on their potential learning value. As always, there is data and there are feelings. Still, the best leaders know that there are decisions to be made, too.

This week, schedule time to read the above article. Then, on your own define what operational excellence means to you and what customer intimacy means to you. Once you have done this, then define, in your own words, what the difference is between a productive and an unproductive failure. This level of work is hard and very important. It will help you and later your team be very prepared for the future.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, April 22, 2019

What Is The Connection Between Excellence, Culture And Strategy? - Part #2

It is time we talk about strategy again. I like how Ken Blanchard and Michael O’Connor wrote in their book, Managing By Values (Berrett-Koehler, 1997) that leaders must think like CEOs. For them, these initials stand for the following groups: customers, employees, owners/stockholders (in the non-non-profit world, think funders) and other stakeholders. When we hold this more global perspective, we remember that strategy is not a singular thing but really the sum of the following three concepts:

- it is an extensively premeditated, carefully built, long term plan designed to achieve a particular goal.

- it needs to be adaptable by nature due to unforeseen variables rather than presenting a rigid set of instructions or tactics which has the potential to create organizational vulnerability.

- it serves an important function in promoting ongoing evolutionary success.

In short, strategy is an adaptable and evolutionary plan.

Now as we grasp this perspective, we also must understand the difference between the following two concepts:

- individual competencies refer to a specific person’s knowledge and skills required to fulfill specific role requirements.  

- organizational capabilities are collective abilities of the firm required to execute the business strategy.  

We need to hold this perspective because if we want to build and execute an organization’s strategy then sometimes we work at the competency level and other times we work at the capabilities level. Occasionally, we work at both at the same time. Recently, I have noticed that we need to improve the individual competencies level of this work, not just the organizational capabilities.

Furthermore, there are two two stages and two unique choices within the world of strategy. At the strategy formation or planning level, the determination of strategic intent, including such aspects as an organization’s mission, vision, and goals is very important. Sometimes, this planning work is highly planned, i.e. well defined and determined through a preset and well-structured process. Other times, the planning is more emergent, i.e. unfolding and evolving through a dynamic and less structured process especially during complex times. Aaron Olson and B. Keith Simerson. in their book, Leading With Strategic Thinking: Four Ways Effective Leaders Gain Insight, Drive Change, and Get Results (Wiley, 2015) note this depth of clarity about these elements makes a big different in the quality of the plan and within the culture of the organization.

However, as I think about these important choices, I remember what John Doerr wrote in his book, Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs (Portfolio, 2018). As they explain, “Ideas are easy. Execution is everything.” And I agree 100%!

In summary, strategy only matters if it leads to purposeful action. So the big question this week is the following: Does your organization’s culture support purposeful action that allows the strategy to move from the paper document into key behaviors at all levels of the organization?

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, April 15, 2019

What Is The Connection Between Excellence, Culture And Strategy? - Part #1

I have enjoyed a lot of wonderful breakfast, lunches and dinners with many different people over the last six months. These times together include some deep listening and very good sharing. Our visits have been interesting and insightful. Now is the time for me to share what I have learned with all of you.

We were at a really good burger place a couple of months ago. The food was good and the conversation was lively when I asked the following question: “What are your expectations of your direct reports?”

He paused in between bites and said, “Good question. My expectations for my direct reports are to drive performance metrics, and to keep me informed of what I should know.”

I thought for a moment and then said, “Metrics are an outcome. They are the result of people making the right choices. The challenge for someone in a leadership position is to recognize that behavior problems almost always precedes quantitative results, according to Patrick Lencioni in his book, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business (Jossey-Bass, 2012). Furthermore, behavioral problems occur long before any decrease in measurable results is apparent.

So, what is the culture or behaviors that would produce those desired results?What is the mindset where everyone makes the right choices?”

You could just see the wheels turning inside his head as he explored the question. After a couple of moments, he responded, “I want everyone focused, doing the right things at the right time and for the right reasons.”

“Good answer,” I commented. “Now, let’s talk about that ….”

Our challenge as leaders is to recognize that organizational culture reflects a set of behavioral norms. Sometimes we agree to them, and sometimes we are not aware of them. For us here today, we need to remember that about 80% of the staff report to a front line supervisor, and about 80% of the staff work side by side with a small group of co-workers. For these particular staff, their front line supervisor and their co-workers, not you as a senior leader, are their world. For them, these relationships are “the company culture”


I believe there are four levels of organizational culture. The first is interpersonal culture which reflects peer to peer relationships. The second is operational culture which reflects the health of the employee to supervisor relationship. The third is strategic culture which reflects the relationship between the supervisor and the senior team. The fourth level is organizational culture which is the sum of all the relationships, i.e. the company as a whole.

What I have learned over the last six months is that we need to focus on improving the interpersonal culture level and the operational culture level. When people think and act clearly at these two levels, then people do the right things for the right reasons at the right time.

This week, reflect on what you are and are not doing to improve interpersonal and operational culture. It is time more people are making better choices and creating better outcomes.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, April 8, 2019

Maintain Your Perspective About Work

Recently, I was talking with a client about a huge three year project. It involved solving many complex and complicated problems. In order to be both strategically and operationally successful, there would need to be changes made in key systems, structure, people and culture.

Some people involved in this project were eager to charge forward and make it all happen at once. Others, upon learning of it, would be very upset, consider it a waste of time and money, and resist every step of the way. And last but not least, there would be some who could care less about any of it. They just want to go to work, do their job, get paid and then get on with others things.

After this client explained to me the scope and the scale of the project, she asked me a question, “What do I need to remember as we begin this three year journey that I might not be thinking about right now?”

I reflected for a moment or two, and then said, “For now, just two things.

There is a Japanese term for this kind of work. It is called a 10,000 aspirin job. There are going to be a lot of headaches, unforeseen situations and numerous complexities. Some days will just be challenging, difficult and hard.

Nevertheless, there are two things that will make a difference in the short and the long run. First, build a very good team and a very good team environment. The amount of change you are trying to create is not done by individual effort. It will only be accomplished by team work and team clarity.

Second, remember the following insight shared with me many years ago: It’s only work if you want to be some place else. Even when times are tough and people are experiencing some headaches, the bond and strength of the relationships within your team will hold you and the team together. When people are part of a strong team that is making progress and making a difference, then they will not want to be some place else. They will stick to it and work to get through it.

In short, maintain your perspective about the upcoming three years of work. And when you get worn along the way, give me a call and we can visit some more.”

She smiled and thanked me. 

Every day as leaders, we need to create a work environment where no one wants to be some place else. 

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257