Recently, a long term client and I were reviewing their latest strategic plan. She had asked me to give her feedback about the current strategic plan and where problems will happen in the execution. Having done this for the last 4 strategic plans, it was an interesting process. During the time we were together, we discussed lessons learned from many years of working together. The result of which was that I am more convinced than ever that we must start to teach and share organizational history.
There are days we get so busy that we forget that by understanding history we understand what got us to this point. Teaching others about the past big picture and how that resulted in past strategic plans helps all involved understand that strategy is evolutionary. When we share our memories about that history, i.e. oral history, this builds clarity and ownership for our current choices.
I have spent many hours over the course of my career sharing meals, cups of hot beverages and occasionally an adult beverage, discussing the past, the present and the future. I have listened to people’s journeys with the organization, and I have shared my own journey with the company. When people feel safe enough to share their story, the outcome of this depth of sharing is that we build bonds and we recognize that history is real rather than some distant past.
What great leaders understand is the following written by James Kerr is his delightful book, Legacy: What The All Blacks Can Teach Us About The Business Of Life, Constable, 2013: “Leaders are storytellers. All great organizations are born from a compelling story. This central organizing thought helps people understand what they stand for and why.” This combination of understanding history and sharing oral history makes the work more meaningful.
While reading The Christian Science Monitor Weekly last fall (I read a diverse collection of resources and find the essays in this weekly new magazine interesting), one section talked about how Millennials “put such a premium on pursing careers that hold meaning for them.” Nothing new here on one level.
The same essay also reported that according to Gallup only 33 percent of US workers feel truly “engaged” while on the job. “That’s up modestly from 26 percent in 2000 and 28 percent in 2009. Some 16 percent of workers are disengaged or unhappy in their jobs, while fully half of the workforce is in a neutral zone, committed to essentially just showing up.” Another poll, by payroll firm ADP, finds that nearly two-thirds of US workers are actively or passively looking for other jobs.” Also no surprise on one level.
For leaders in key position the big question is the following: How do we respond to this news? Along with sharing our history which gives us perspective, I think we need to create new and more empowering stories. One problem we are experiencing right now is that we are letting others define our story. It is time we define our own story and write or renew the empowering parts of it.
As I teach in the From Vision to Action Leadership Training, successful leaders are architects of meaning. As Joel Kurtzman in his excellent book Common Purpose: How Great Leaders Get Organizations to Achieve The Extraordinary, (Jossey-Bass 2010) points out: “Strategic leaders are people within organizations who plot the course... Strategic leaders generally can think far into the future...The best of these people understand where the future is going and how to get there.
The role of operational leaders is quite different from those of strategic leaders. Operational leaders make certain the trains run on time, the manufacturing processes are adequate, the logistics systems work, the technicians are well trained, and the the trucks are where they are supposed to be.... like strategic leaders, operational leaders are vital to an organization’s success.”
Leaders who are architects of meaning routinely confront paradoxes and wrestle with deep questions of identity and direction. They are comfortable asking the following questions:
- Who are we?
- What do we believe or stand for?
- Where are we going?
- How are we going to get there?
Then, they seek shared answers to these questions on the strategic and operational levels. They remind all involved that each day we are building our legacy by what we are doing. The best leaders understand that we are constantly preparing the organization to be handed over to those who will follow us, hoping they will it do it even better.
The outcome of sharing past history and sharing our stories plus answering the above important questions is coherence, i.e. the quality of becoming integrated. And given all that is happening in the world right now, coherence is something we all need. This week, share your history and lessons learned with others. It will restore perspective and build connections in very important ways.