Monday, April 9, 2018

What is the connection between organizational history, culture and meaningful work within successful organizations? - part #1

As we sat down for dinner, I realized that I had not seen her in quite a while.

“So how have you been?”, I asked her.

“Overwhelmed” was her response. “I’ve had to work on all four pillars of the organization, namely people, structure, systems and culture.”

“It’s been painful,” she continued. “These are good people. We are good people, but we have no control over all the changes that are taking place. It is waves upon waves of unforeseen variables and choices being made by people who do not realize the impact of their actions. It breaks my heart to lead through such difficulties.”

“I am so sorry you are having to go through this,” I responded.

And she wept quietly at the table. They were tears of grief, tears of anger about stuff over which she had no control, tears of letting go of control, tears to finally be with someone who gets the pain of leadership and tears of realization that it is going to get harder before it gets better.

Right now, life is dynamic, not linear. We can not control so much that is going on and yet we have to move forward together through the pain.

Since the Fall 2018 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable, I have learned three important lessons. First, we need to pry ourselves away from screen time interactions and analysis, and reconnect with people, mission and meaningful work in person. Dashboards tell us some of the story but never the whole story. As Gregory Boyle in his exceptional book, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (Simon & Schuster, 2017), reminds us: “Everything that counts can’t be counted.” There is a time and a place for fast leadership, but I believe we need to invest in slow leadership, namely the work of building and maintaining key relationship. Metrics help, but relationships are the foundation of successful action.

Second, we need to remember that deciding something and doing something are two different things. We have lost track of this in the work of fast leadership, particularly in our work with younger leaders. “I sent the e-mail” is not executing a decision.

Third, organizational culture, once established, can not be solved by reductionism. Trying to change group behaviors through individual goal setting, measurement and accountability will only work so far. We forget that our organizational culture reflects our collective behaviors. For example, you can not remove the ingredients within a baked cookie, i.e. the culture. You can not undo things to change things; you can not move backwards to make it better. Instead, you have to start over. This must be a re-founding by returning to our identity/purpose, reclaiming what we still believe in, a reclaiming of what gives meaning to what we are doing and what we aspire to be. It all depends on the values we embed at the start of this process.

Therefore, it is time for leaders in large and small organizations to engage in restorative processes. We must restore and/or build new processes where people feel confident and smart again. We need processes where we make sense of what formerly made us feel overwhelmed. We need experiences where “We are all in this together” takes on new meaning.

The first way to do this is to engage in more strategic dialogues. The goal of a strategic dialogue is to create strategic awareness, strategic understanding, and strategic perspective, which will result in better strategic choices and operational choices.

Strategic dialogues are a capacity building exercise. An effective strategic dialogue is the combination of three elements, namely education, awareness, and the building of commitment. Successful strategic dialogues are often facilitated so the leader or leaders can just focus on listening.

Within a strategic dialogue, focus on three areas. First, explore strategic context or if you do not like that word then use the words “strategic landscape.” Here, I encourage you to answer the question: Why are we moving forward? The big picture outside the organization needs to be explored and in particular, explain how the customer has and has not changed over time.

Second, explain strategic direction by answering the question, Where are we going? As leaders, we do this by connecting the why from above dialogue with the where of this question. In particular, explain how the company’s strategy has changed over time in order to meet the changing needs of our customers.

Third, explain the strategic nexus or philosophy by answering this question, How will we do this? Being mission-driven, and values-led means there needs to be  alignment and interconnection between mission, vision and core values with the current strategic plan. In particular, explain why the company’s mission and core values have not changed over time. 

For leaders to do the above successfully, they are going to need to get very good at the following two behaviors: sharing over telling and listening over responding. Now, some of you may be thinking what is the difference between sharing vs. telling and listening vs. responding? Mutual respect is one major difference. When leaders choose to share and listen during a strategic dialogue, there are no leaders or followers. There is no us vs. them. There is instead a collective we.

From my experience, this level of work requires leaders to utilize deep listening. This is a way of hearing in which we are fully present to what is happening in the moment without trying to control or judge it. We are hearing others with an open mind and a compassionate heart.

When we engage in restorative processes, we must engage in routine coaching in order to build capacity. From the person who is being coached, this means they are feeling heard. From the person who is doing the coaching, they must show up and be present. It is more transformational coaching rather than technical coaching. 

For coaching at this level to be successful, there needs to be the right environment for coaching. Many leaders think we are in sync with our environment, but actually it’s at war with us. As Marshall Goldsmith points out in his top-notch book, Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts - Becoming the Person You Want to Be, (Crown Business, 2015), we think we control our environment but in fact it controls us. Our environment changes us, and a changing environment will aways change us. Therefore, if we do not create and control our environment, our environment creates and controls us. And the result turns us into someone we do not recognize.

From my experience, the right coaching environment is one where certain elements are not changing, namely ample time, an uninterrupted space,  mutual respect, deep listening, two way dialogue, and active note taking.

Furthermore, when we engage in restorative processes, we must also engage in regular feedback. Feedback is vital to coaching. However, feedback is rarely given because it can make the coach and the person being coached uncomfortable. Returning to the aforementioned Goldsmith’s work, we forget that a coach is a follow-up mechanism. He or she instills accountability. At the highest level, a coach is a source of mediation, bridging the gap between the visionary Planner and short-sighted Doer in us. The Coach meshes our inner Planner with our inner Doer.

This week think deeply about strategic dialogues, restorative processes and how to take your coaching work to the next level. Given the dynamic world we are living in, this level of leadership is sorely needed.

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

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