Monday, March 25, 2013

The Dynamic Nature of Strategy and Culture

Jason Jennings in his wonderful book, Less is More: How Great Companies Use Productivity as a Competitive Tool in Business, Penguin Putnam, 2002, writes that “In productive companies, the culture is the strategy.... Unlike other companies, productive companies know the difference between tactics and strategy. The difference is the foundation that allows them to stay focused and build remarkable companies. They have institutionalized their strategy.” 

From my work with leaders and managers from across the country, I have learned that the best companies institutionalize their strategy, in part, by institutionalizing their culture. This begins when they institutionalize organizational clarity.

To do this, great leaders and managers understand that organizational culture is an integrated pattern of shared knowledge, beliefs and behaviors translated into a collective commitment toward shared values, goals, and practices/systems. The key is building a “shared” understanding of how we do business.

Edgar Schein, a former professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who has made a notable mark on the field of organizational development in many areas, including career development, group process consultation, and organizational culture, wrote that culture is “a pattern of shared basic assumptions invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration." Furthermore, he explains that this culture “has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems."

Charles W. L. Hill, and Gareth R. Jones in their book, Strategic Management, Houghton Mifflin 2001, point out that culture is "the specific collection of values and norms that are shared by people and groups in an organization and that control the way they interact with each other and with stakeholders outside the organization." 

As all of us know, every organization has a set of systems and sub-systems, i.e. structures, cultures, and defaults. Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky in their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Harvard Business Press, 2009, explain that every organizational culture is the sum of it’s folklore, namely the stories people frequently tell that indicate what is most important, rituals, group norms, and meeting protocols.

The simple and defining difference between good and great leaders from my perspective is that the best consciously define, build and reinforce a shared culture on a daily basis. This is what separates them from the mediocre leaders and companies.  

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

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Upcoming Challenges For Non-Profit Social Service Organizations

Right now in non-profit, social service offices across the country, there are many people in leadership positions worried about the future. Some are worried about the funding for human services and whether or not it will be there for those who are currently being funded and for those who will need funding in the future. Others are worried about the many different challenges that those who are coming now into services bring to the agency, especially those who have a dual diagnosis such as a combination of mental health and substance abuse issues, or mental health and disability issues. Finally, some leaders are worried about the slow decline of qualified staff who are applying for open positions. During the recession, the number of applicants was steady, but now that the economy slowly improves, there is a decline in number of qualified applications. Thus, recruitment and retention issues are on the rise for many non-profits.

As I reflect on all of these concerns, I am reminded of an article I read many years ago called “The New Landscape For Nonprofits” by William P. Ryan in the 1999 January-February issue of the Harvard Business Review.  While there are many wonderful insights in this article, especially when I read it again fourteen years after it was first published, there are a couple of key points that are quite pertinent to this spring’s situation.

First, Ryan points out that while for-profits are entering into the non-profit world to deliver service, the “real issue is whether nonprofits can adapt without compromising the qualities that distinguish them from for profit organizations.” I would expand on this perspective by noting that another issue from my perspective in 2013 is whether or not social service non-profits will compromise their own mission and core values to meet the demands of the county, state or federal government who funds them to deliver services. Right now, many organizations struggle to meet the increasing demands of documentation and systems discipline put forth by their funding sources and as a result are focusing on compliance to such a degree that they may be compromising their own core philosophies related to service delivery. 

Now this situation of meeting funders’ expectations is not new for social service non-profits but the challenge is that many of their staff over the last 5-7 years have been trained to follow a specific perspective about service delivery and now believe that the organization is out of alignment with what it said is most important and what it actually does within the context of service delivery. For example, front line staff in these organizations often share with me in seminars the following question: “Which is more important - the person served or the paperwork proving we served the person?” Leaders of these agencies often reply “Both.” But front line supervisors and staff need a more detailed answer to such a complex and multi-layered question. At this time period, I think many leaders struggle with delivering a clear answer that can be understood and cascaded down into the organization. Furthermore, I do not believe this misalignment is going to go away any time soon. Nevertheless, people in leadership positions need to address this issue and choose to either adapt their mission and core values to the new reality or acknowledge that the potential for a misalignment could happen, and then discuss this openly and collectively as an organization. 

Second, Ryan back in 1999 in the aforementioned article notes that the growth of outsourcing will continue and may even be “unstoppable.” With 20/20 hindsight, we now know that this pattern of solving problems through outsourcing is clearly the new normal for all organizations, be they for profit or non-profit. From a forward looking perspective, there continues to be a question about what social service non-profits can be most effective at over time.  

Remembering the work of Jim Collins in his monograph called Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Collins points out that there are three key questions that all social service organizations need to address. First what are you deeply passionate about? Second, what can you be the best in the world at? And third, what drives your resource engine? The answers to each question, first proposed back in 2005, are still relevant today, especially with the funding and service challenges before social service non-profits. And when an organization or agency addresses these complex, yet simple appearing questions, I am sure that quite a few will realize they need to stop doing certain things or consider outsourcing them to more qualified organizations who are more passionate about doing them extremely well.

Third, Ryan notes that “big is beautiful.” As he explains, “Size confers several benefits on an organization: economies of scale, opportunities to manage risk across contracts, the ability to compete for contracts that require a wide range of services, and even the ability to recruit good employees with the promise of advancement in a growing organization.” Given the aforementioned challenges related to the development and maintenance of an in-depth infrastructure to assure quality and adequate electronic documentation, many organizations are going to struggle to build and sustain such systems and infrastructure while simultaneously being able to expand their service delivery foot print. They will want to be big and growing, but may be limited by resources available to support both growth and operational infrastructure at the same time.

Furthermore, these current challenges will not go away. Instead, I suspect they will increase during the coming years. It appears that many non-profit social service organization are continuing to be defined and judged by more corporate for-profit parameters and expectations. During upcoming strategic planning sessions for these agencies, those involved will need to recognize that being thorough, responsive and nimble are going to become more and more important within the social service sector during the next 5-7 years. 

The future of non-profit social services will always be dynamic. The question of who will deliver the best services in the most effective and efficient manner will not go away. The first step today is to realize that we will need to continue to expand our leadership and management capacity to meet these rising expectations as well as reflect on what we deem to be most important. Likewise, we also need to keep moving forward strategically and operationally without compromising the organization’s mission and core values. The challenges are great and the work is important. Now is the time to continue forward with great thought, effort and perspective. 

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

Monday, March 18, 2013

Dual Operating Systems

This morning I am reminded of the following opening lines of an old hymn: “Open my eyes, that I may see, Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me...”

Our challenge as leaders and managers this late winter into early spring is to open the eyes of all we work with so that they may see the strategic and operational implications of our collective actions. The difficulty is that many of our direct reports, colleagues and key stakeholders suffer from a common form of blindness, namely spatial blindness.

Barry Oshry in his book, Seeing Systems: Unlocking the Mysteries of Organizational Life, Berrett-Koehler 1995, describes spatial blindness as happening when someone sees parts of the system but not the whole system. For example in a car, someone may see where they put in the gas but not comprehend how it fuels the engine and moves the vehicle forward. Likewise within an organization, someone may fill out a report but not understand how it impacts payment for services rendered.

One unique problem at this time period is that many companies are running two key operating systems within the company at the same time and many leaders and managers are not fully aware of both of them.  First, every organization has a strategic planning, implementation and evaluation system running in the company. The goal of this system is to develop and implement strategy in a successful manner while at the exact same time being strategically adaptable due to unforeseen variables. Rather than presenting a rigid set of instructions or tactics which has the potential to create organizational vulnerability, this strategic level operating system is focused on promoting ongoing evolutionary success.

Similarly, every organization has a day to day or operational operating system which is focused on serving existing customers within existing markets. This system has a sales force focused on that customer base and a supply chain focused on supporting the sales force. The goal is to efficiently deliver the product or services offered. By managing this cash generating part of the business, the company has the capacity to be better operationally and strategically.

The difficulty is that many leaders and managers can not see the wholeness of both of these dual operating systems and thus they make poor decisions that impact either one or the other of the systems. Sometimes they even impact both systems in a negative manner, creating a huge trough of chaos.

This winter into spring we must open the eyes of all involved so that they can see the purpose of both of these dual operating systems and recognize the importance that each one is making within the organization. When this takes place, the old hymn is correct - “Open my eyes, that I may see, Glimpses of truth Thou has for me; Place in my hands the wonderful key, That shall unclasp and set me free.”

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

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Four Difficult Truths

There are days when it is uncomfortable to teach people about organizational change and uncomfortable to be their executive coach or consultant. This happens because I have to share with them information that I know they will not like or want to hear. Still, learning this information can make a profound difference in the way they lead people through the world of organizational change.

First, changing peoples’ minds always takes longer than expected.

Recently, I was visiting with a local friend who was in the later stages of remodeling their house. As she showed me around, we entered a small bathroom that had been completely remodeled. She said to me, “This room is so small you can not even change your mind in it.”  I burst out laughing as it was one of the best comments I had heard in ages.

The challenge for many leaders is to recognize that people going through the world of organizational change often have a very limited perspective of what is happening within the organization and within the environment around the organization. This is not their fault. They are focused on doing their job and doing it well. They zoom in on key details and get them done.  

Meanwhile, many leaders zoom out and look holistically at the organization. They see the proverbial big picture and comprehend the technical and adaptive challenges before the whole organization. As a result of this level of understanding and perspective, they initiate change.

And then this level of organizational change is passed on to others who are doing the day to day work of the organization. These individuals who actually have to do the work of changing systems, culture, etc., often do not buy-in to these proposed changes and often do not get it all done. The result is that the leaders are frustrated and the employees are frustrated.  As a consultant and executive coach, I have to point out that changing people’s mind is not an overnight experience. It takes considerable time, communication and listening. It also takes an understanding of the second difficult truth.

Second, most companies are organized to protect status quo.

While many executives will argue with this point and explain to me that they have developed systems for continuos quality improvement and innovation, I often have to re-explain that culture eats strategy for lunch and quality improvement for dinner.  Few people are wired to radically change their lives every day. Most thoroughly enjoy routine. We are, for the most part, creatures of habit. 

Accepting this fact is difficult but helpful when leading people through the world of organizational change. It explains why John Kotter was right so many years ago when he wrote in the Harvard Business Review that creating a sense of urgency that doing nothing is more dangerous than doing something helps people move outside their comfort zone. 

The challenge is that many leaders under communicate this level of urgency. I am constantly coaching executives this winter into spring that they need to deploy the shampoo method of communication, namely “wash, rinse, and repeat.” By having a core message that they stick to for at least 90 days, they will finally break through the status quo mentality and be heard.

Third, most companies initiate long term change with short term leadership.

It is exhausting to observe how many organizations do the above. They want change and they want it now. As a result, they often throw young leaders to the proverbial wolves of organizational change, hoping they will be successful.  It is time we recognize that just filling a slot on the TO does not constitute being a person who has the capacity to lead others through change. We need leaders with the mindset and the skill set to do the long term work. 

Remembering that successful organizational change takes on average 5-7 years, we need to prepare young leaders to become long term leaders and we need to provide them with regular and in-depth coaching which helps them process all that is happening. If we do this, then we have the chance to create effective conditions for successful long term change.

Fourth, most companies want significant change with little to no resistance and conflict.

While this may happen in fiction books and in academic case studies, the reality is that most people do not like change. Instead of embracing change, they focus on what they have to give up. Furthermore, they often feel alone and self-conscious during change. Therefore, they resist change. But what leaders need to know is that they are actually resisting the pain over which they can not control that comes with change. What successful leaders do is reframe resistance and conflict related to change as a form of feedback which contains valuable information.

Being a leader who wants to improve performance within their organization is a great thing. Understanding the above four difficult truths may not be easy but it will be helpful. The key is to work with them rather than against them.

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

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

An Addiction to Speed

Currently, we are living our lives at the speed of software and believing that there is an app for everything. However, the reality is that we are not generating more time or space in our lives for clarity or for the things and people that make our life meaningful. Instead, we just feel more hurried and pushed by endless e-mails, meetings and unrealistic timelines.

After considerable reflection, I believe we have loss touch with what it means to live a life as a leader that is balanced, clear, happy, and healthy. In particular, we have lost the body memory of what this feels like to be rested. We also have loss touch with ourselves and with role models of people who live a clear, balanced and healthy life. Instead, we, as leaders, often feel we are all alone with the weight of the world on our shoulders. No one comprehends the magnitude of our decisions or the complexity and ambiguity that surrounds us on a daily basis.

However, over the last decade, I have witnessed something that is very unique. When people participate in the From Vision to Action Executive Roundtables, they discover a room of kindred spirits who are aware and understand the difficulties and challenges of leadership. They discover others who are wanting and attempting to transform their organizations into something better. They find people who believe and are graciously sharing the lessons they’ve learned along the pathway to the future. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, these participants discover a room of possibilities, potential and opportunities. Rather than feeling drained, they feel reenergized by the experience.

On April 11-12, the Spring 2013 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable will take place at the Courtyard by Marriott in West Des Moines - Clive, Iowa. Already a wonderful group of people have signed up. If you and members of your team would like to participate, there is still time and space for this to happen.  Here is a link for more information:

I hope you can join us at the Spring 2013 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable. 

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

Monday, March 11, 2013

Progress, Not Perfection, Is the Key

Teresa M. Amabile and Steve J. Kramer in their very interesting article called “The Power of Small Wins” in the May 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review note that after a decade of research, which included a deep analysis of daily diaries kept by teammates on creative projects, they discovered something they call the “Progress Principle.” As they write, “Of all things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.... And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”

As Frederick Herzberg in a 1968 issue of the Harvard Business Review and the author of One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees? notes, “People are most satisfied with their jobs (and therefore most motivated) when those jobs give them the opportunity to experience achievement.” Amabile and Kramer in the aforementioned article explain it this way: “The best thing they [managers and leaders] can do for their people is provide the catalysts and nourishers that allow projects to move forward while removing the obstacles and toxins that result in setbacks.” Catalysts are actions that support work and nourishers are acts of interpersonal support such as respect, recognition, encouragement, emotional comfort, and opportunities for affiliation. Overall, the best leaders and managers agree with Amabile and Kramer that “the key to motivating performance is supporting progress in meaningful work.”

Our focus this month needs to be on progress instead of perfection. If every employee in the entire company is getting better at what they are doing, then the individual actions will transform the entire company. And this is something that will be noticed by customers and the market place.

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

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Source That Ties It All Together

I have the delightful opportunity each month to visit with numerous leaders and managers in different companies through out the country. Given my long term working relationships with these individuals, we quickly get past the superficial and end up in the deep end of the pool, dealing with complex and often unique adaptive situations and problems that cross their path. Working at this level with so many people, it becomes abundantly clear that the best leaders and the best managers all rely on their company’s strategic nexus to make the appropriate decisions and actions which will move the company forward in a successful manner.

The strategic nexus in each company is unique to that company. First, nexus comes form the Latin word, nectere, which means to bind or hold together. In successful companies, the strategic nexus is the sum of two things, namely it’s core ideology and it’s strategic plan. The former is defined by the company’s mission, vision and core values. The latter is defined by the goals and metrics within the strategic plan. The goal of the former is to preserve the core of the company and the goal of the later is to constantly stimulate progress. When these two are utilized well, then an organization can move forward confidently and consistently no matter what is taking place around them.

However, many young leaders and managers are not clear about what the basic elements within the nexus mean. Often, when asked about these elements, I like to explain them in this manner. First, the vision of the company is the destination we are seeking to get to over time. Second, the strategy of the company is the path we choose to take to get to that vision. Next, the mission of the company is what we do along that pathway and the core values are how we act with each other and our customers along the path. Finally, the tactics are the decisions and choices we take along the path to the vision. While I recognize that this is a simplistic way to explain some very complex concepts, it is, nevertheless, a good beginning.

In short, the best leaders and managers that I have have met during my wonderful life journey all utilize a well defined and well communicated strategic nexus to make their organizations highly successful.  It is the source that ties it all together. 

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