As leaders, our experience tells us when things are working well for an organization and when they are not.
Often, when they are working well, things tend to be in alignment. The challenge is often taking the time to slow down and acknowledge what we are seeing and feeling, and then work to distinguish what it really is. We often have a sense of when and where things are aligned and misaligned in our own companies. But, the demands on our time and attention can easily distract us from a true exploration of what is happening.
All leaders get distracted and sidetracked at some point, but the great ones find a way to rally back to what is most important. In the case below, it was survival.
A Split Environment
From my first meeting with this industry-defining technology company, the energy was palpable. The dark, gray walls, locked conference room doors, 1980-style table, and dimly-lit space gave us the first clue that the company had significant alignment challenges. Then, their team entered the room, dressed similarly in black polo shirts featuring the company logo emblazoned on their chests. Everyone was professional but guarded—consistent with the environment.
Then, the conversation began and it became clear that at this company, there was the leadership team . . . and everyone else. Yes, they all shared the morbidly dark perspective, dour outlook, and gray walls.
But, that was all they shared. It was clear and purposeful that there was a divide. Even the language used by members of the leadership team to describe the workforce, and each other, demonstrated a split organization. There was little to no agreement or flow of positive energy throughout the organization.
The employees recognized the company’s obsession with day-to-day operations, the lack of a real long-range strategy and any focus or belief in the company’s culture. The leaders acknowledged that they could not focus on culture because they believed it was not something that would affect the performance of the people or the organization. It was made very clear to us that “culture” was a dirty word. In their minds, addressing the company’s culture was reserved for soft and fuzzy exercises that held little merit.
This company, facing significant financial pressure to remain viable, was not at a time in its history when they were willing to deviate from the tried and true, even though the tried and true was exactly the strategy that led the company to the brink of financial chaos. Little had been done during the previous “dark years,” a time when the company was bleeding cash and focused on issues not directly affecting the operations of thebusiness. There were leadership squabbles, legal battles, and a company slowly moving backward. There was no investment back into the company or into employee development. Half joking, one of the leaders described his colleague’s idea of motivating employees was to “prop them up at their desks with an IV drip of coffee.” And, the atmosphere proved his point.
Even in all the disarray, there were glimmers of hope buried in their narrative and in their eyes. We could see that there was a willingness and deep desire to be something different, although they made it clear that they would fight us every step of the way. It was just who they were.
We began by addressing the direction, perhaps the most contentious side for them because of the years of disagreement, by building a robust strategic plan with cascading accountability from the CEO of the company to the management team to the line-level employees.
This may seem basic, and it is, but this was a transformational moment for the company. It forced leadership out of its “battle mentality” and allowed them to breathe and envision something outside of their current reality. It provided a mental break, and the planning process gave them permission to reorient their minds into a future state that resonated with all employees. The strategy allowed the company to balance its operational focus with its future vision.
One of the imperatives from the plan was to create a new, appropriate identity for the organization and its leaders. As a tech-savvy company, the brand needed to immediately connote innovation, modernity, and professionalism. They changed the narrative of the company and eliminated black from the color palate—and their daily dress. The intended message to employees and customers was that this was a new day at the company. A bright future lay ahead.
With these “quick wins” from the strategic plan established and a better understanding of how to apply our research, their perspective began to change. Through the process of change, they began to recognize the need for balance between the strategic systems (direction and operations) and the culture systems (people and engagement) to allow the necessary flow of energy between the two to work. That energy flow was obviously a missing key component to exorcizing the negativity that pervaded the office and operations.
While it took quite a while to convince them that the ROI of an employee engagement program was worth their time and resources, they reluctantly acquiesced when they realized there was a tangible outcome to their efforts, and everything was backed by real science.
The program soon took on a life of its own and manifested itself with the development of a full competency model and new values that described the company’s way of working. They redesigned processes and protocols to become more employee-centric. They redesigned the office space and introduced activities to encourage their values. They went from the proverbial bad guys to the visionary, collaborative, high tech leaders they aspired to be. Leaders were revered for their willingness to do what was right and best for the company.
Most of all, they changed attitudes about the people on the front lines—understanding and accepting that they were the ultimate determiners of the company’s performance. They proved themselves right, and positive energy could be felt throughout the company. Employees regularly talked about the changes and in follow-up research, noted, “The energy felt different”; “something was different in the air”; and “I can’t describe what I feel. The environment just feels better.”
The next time we tested employee engagement, it had moved from a negative number to a healthy, positive percentage showing a significant positive score, and the profits for the company mirrored the gains in the employee engagement scores.
The energy on the inside of an organization not only affects those inside but those on the outside, too. And to the leaders affecting the change, it felt good knowing that they were leading change and making a difference, not only to their company but their employees.
As leaders, we must recognize the daily impediments that surround us and impede our progress. We must also take time to understand if those roadblocks or circuit breakers are real or if they are manufactured in our minds. When we can take the time to understand that we have control over our minds and what we allow to influence us, positively or negatively, we can eliminate wasted energy and lost time.
Excerpted from Leading Clarity: The Breakthrough Strategy to Unleash PEOPLE, PROFIT, and PERFORMANCE (Wiley, April 3, 2018).