As an artist, when you learn to paint with oil paint, for example, you have to learn the characteristics of the paint, how to thin it, how to thicken it, how to build a surface, how to mix color, how to manage your brushes and the nuances of the surface of a canvas or board or whatever you are painting on. Knowing these foundations of the medium is what enables you to use the medium for your unique expression. Things will likely be messy, muddled, and frustrating at first, but putting in the time with the mess is the only way to become an artist.
Leadership is the same. You have to learn the characteristics of leadership, how to communicate, how to empathize, how to listen, how to delegate, how to prioritize, how to know when to step up and when to step back to empower others. Knowing these foundations to leadership is what enables you to find your unique version of it. Things will likely be messy, muddled, and frustrating at first, but putting in the time with the mess is the only way to become a leader.
In art or leadership, there is no prescription for the outcome, there is only knowledge and application of the medium and investment in the process. So, artist, leader, or both, you have to be willing to get a little messy in your practice if you are going to find your voice.
Last weekend, I went hiking with my wife and daughters. We headed to a familiar trail knowing from previous hikes that the bridge was out where we needed to cross the river. But, we also knew that a couple of trees had fallen previously and created a very workable bridge that we’d successfully navigated before.
But, as we approached, we realized those two big trees were no longer lying across the river. They were gone. It’s early Spring now and we weren’t planning on swimming and didn’t have any water shoes and the water was high and quite cold - but it was the beginning of the hike and we had to get across.
Given that our trees were gone, the next obvious thing to look for were stepping stones - some pattern for us to get across without getting wet. No luck.
So, then we walked up and down the bank a bit looking for options. And, low and behold, there was actually another fallen tree reaching all the way from bank to bank. The problem was that there was no way any of us had the balance to climb across it. That wouldn’t work either.
Ultimately, we all shed our shoes and teamwork-ed it across the river - my kids were total troopers as we slipped and slid and stepped on rocks of all shapes and sharpness while our feet slowly transitioned from painfully cold to numb.
It was not easy or particularly pleasant, my daughter hurt her ankle for starters as her foot slid deep between two rocks, but we crossed and continued on a wonderful hike (albeit with a bit of a limp) that included a picnic at a waterfall.
On the way back, we approached that same crossing and that same skinny tree traversing the river - and a totally different idea came to mind. What if we didn’t try to walk on it but rather used it as a balance rail? After all, the rocks had been even more slick and more treacherous than we realized the first time. We’d still go barefoot but we’d at least have something to hold onto.
As we mulled this option, we also noticed that the river bed was markedly smoother - pretty much one solid rock - at this small section beneath this tree.
We shed our shoes and were across in no time - no slips, no falls, no ankle injuries.
This all left me curious as to why we hadn’t seen this tree and this section of the river as the solution when we first faced the problem that day of crossing the river without a bridge. We had looked right at it!
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
1. We initially doubled down on our problem-centric thinking. We needed to cross the river and the bridge was out, and now our familiar fallen-tree crossing was out too! We unconsciously processed this as two problems (1. Need to cross and 2. No trees) when really it was still the original problem and the absence of a previous solution. And, we unfortunately started solving for the absence of a previous solution: we needed a tree to walk across because that’s how we’d solved this before, but the one flimsy tree we saw just wasn’t going to cut it.
2. We jumped too quickly to a new solution without creatively adapting the resources we already had and knew. The tree was key to efficiently solving our problem all along - at least on this day - but when we couldn’t find one to walk across, we threw it out as part of the solution. We jumped quickly to the stepping stones strategy and then to the straight-up wading strategy without thinking creatively about how the tree could still be used in a different way to help us across the river.
3. We didn’t fully evaluate all of the variables and possibilities available with a new strategy. We knew the water was cold and we weren’t exactly excited about getting wet at the very beginning of the hike. But, once we believed that was the only option, we just made it happen. We looked at the depth of the water. We looked at the speed of the water. We knew about the cold of the water. We knew the rocks were slippery (not that slipper though!). We knew they could be sharp. But, we didn’t consider the alternative possibility of finding a smooth, solid rock floor that was just 30 feet from us - beneath that tree.
Problems and solutions both build inertia, and sometimes this is critical for efficient and quick decision-making. But, sometimes this inertia sends us on the wrong path or on a more difficult path to the same spot or perhaps even derails us altogether (my daughter’s ankle could have been a lot worse) all because of the initial ease of not thinking much or the comforting familiarity with a known version of the problem and/or solution.
So, if we can start recognizing and feeling inertia in our work and in our lives and committing to pausing just for a moment to take in the situation anew, to make sure we’ve thought of all of the variables, seen them fresh for today, and built our best options from there - rather than yesterday - we will find small moments each day that can transform how we create our way through life.
A couple of years ago, I was working with a multi-billion dollar, global financial services company that had (pre-Covid) a vast network of on-location staff as well as remote online and call center staff to provide direct support to their customers. As we talked about growth and change in their company and their market, we explored if and how they were, or could be, learning from these front-line employees spread across the globe. What were these people hearing directly from customers that the company really needed to hear and understand?
We’ve all heard the saying about the importance of having “an ear to the ground” so we can sense imminent changes in our work environments and markets, but how well do we do it? Who has their ears to the ground more than those meeting our customers where they are? Dealing with their problems? Frustrations? Who has the potential to positively or negatively impact our customers minute-to-minute on a daily basis?
Too many of the people on the front-lines of our work think they are too “low on the totem pole” to speak up in our companies or don’t have the power to create change in their own work. And, too many companies think the same way. As a result, many of us are really missing the opportunity to become more resilient, adaptable, and creative organizations. When we don’t listen to our customers and the employees who interact directly with them, we run the risk of missing indicators of emergent change in our markets, products, and even broader society that can lead our products and companies toward their next iteration.
Through a simple, facilitated reflection process, this company - which thought it did a good job listening to its people because they could reel off some good anecdotes - realized that their listening to front-line employees across the organization was far spottier than they would like. They recognized that their anecdotes were about specific leaders or departments that carried this value of active listening rather than a reflection of a systemic approach or strategy by the firm. The implications from this kind of company self-awareness became pretty vast as they then considered who they needed to train, how they needed to adjust professional roles and expectations, and how a better process of listening could improve their product offerings.
To cultivate a powerful culture, people at all levels of our companies need formal and informal outlets to provide feedback, ask questions, and share ideas and solutions. This is just strategically smart. It’s not about being nice to our employees. Not only will listening to our employees make our company more resilient and adaptive, it will also make for happier employees and better products and services for our customers. When they know their ideas and insights are respected (even if not always acted upon), our people will more actively and critically identify customer patterns and frequent issues that we may never see, and solve them in ways we may never have thought of. They will own their work and the whole company will perform better because of it.
Powerful cultures don’t happen by accident. They result from powerful leaders, powerful relationships, and organizations that understand and leverage the power of their people at all levels.
Also relevant: “Does your organization have a powerful culture or a culture of power?”
In my last blog "Stop doing your part", I focused on building a do-what-it takes team. But, consider this the appended warning to that blog: you can’t just ask people to do what it takes as an excuse for not investing sufficiently in your strategy or improving your own leadership.
So, as much as we want the do-what-it-takes attitude and we understand and celebrate the successes that such an attitude can generate, we need to check ourselves to make sure we aren’t burning people out. Just because one of our people can step up and do extraordinary work in a difficult situation doesn’t mean we should allow that situation to persist - or chronically resurface. Their extraordinary work should not become the ordinary expectation.
Extraordinary individual effort is no more sustainable for driving successful teams over time than the do-my-part mentality that I discussed in the last blog. It leads to burnout and pushes our do-what-it-takes people to feel they are just being taken advantage of. It doesn’t take long for people to realize when they get recognized for doing great work simply by getting more work.
So, we must think critically about why we find ourselves in situations that require extraordinary effort from our people. Is it strategy? Resourcing? Skills/team/work mismatches? Unreasonable expectations? Or, is our leadership perhaps fomenting unnecessarily harried working conditions? It is probably some of all of these as they tend to be interrelated.
So, let’s celebrate our people for doing what it takes but build teams and organizations that aren’t always pushing them to the limit.
And start doing what it takes.
Teams are complex social systems with emergent dynamics among members and emergent contexts in which they operate. This is true of small teams and only more so as teams grow.
If people merely do their part, they are actually complicating things, forming a complicated system; and complicated systems are to complex work what the assembly line is to internet security.
In dynamic and growth-oriented work environments, your “part” is always emerging, so as soon as you start just doing it then you probably aren’t fully doing it anymore.
While you may be a high performer and may be surrounded by high performers, no mere collection of individual contributors will ever manifest in a sustainable, high-performing team doing complex work. A set of powerful parts will not inevitably make a powerful whole. In fact, the opposite is more likely true: the more powerful and simultaneously partitioned the individual contributors the less likely you are to build a powerful team that bridges them. The strength of the individual contributor mindset is too strong; the rationalization of the do-my-part mentality feeds itself and invites others to just do their part as well.
As a result, as do-my-part teams grow, they become increasingly less adaptive and less effective in responding to the emergent dynamics within and around them.
So, how do we build more complex teams and avoid complicated ones?
How do we inspire more people to do what it takes?
Hire for where you are going, not just where you are.
We often think about hiring for “fit” with our team and/or organization. While this may seem to make sense in the immediate term, we should understand that “fit” is a temporary construct that belies the change inherent in a growth strategy. So, fit today could easily not fit the future. Consequently, we should hire and invest in people who will help us deliver and define an emergent future. We need team players and learners who will not just do the work but will help create and define it.
Communicate the vision.
If our people at all levels are going to do what it takes to define our collective future, they must be organized around and feel a sense of ownership of some collective vision. They should also understand (and it should be true) that they are helping define how that vision evolves as the team and market context also evolve. Team leaders need to communicate and actively invite input on the vision not merely to try to get our people aligned around it but to more quickly identify the people who don’t, and perhaps won’t ever, own it.
Promote creative tension.
I have written about creative tension in both of my books as I continue to try and flesh out my thinking on team power dynamics. For this blog, I’ll just share below the core components of relational tension and illustrate how they differ in environments of creative versus destructive tension.
We live in a culture of more-more-more. As a result, we often think we have to do more to be more, that our personal and professional development amount to an accumulation of experiences. The passive presumption, then, is that that experiences naturally bear the fruits of knowledge, or better yet, wisdom.
But, busyness breeds neither knowledge nor wisdom, and “activity without learning is merely a happening” (Myles Horton). Further, busyness can be isolating – even as we are working with others and serving on boards and are always around people, our relationships can become increasingly shallow. We are doing more and relating less.
So, if you are looking to get more meaning out of what you do, here is my first challenge: stop focusing on how much you do, and try and figure out how much you’ve learned.
Here is my second: find ways to share what you have learned so that what you do matters to the world.
Here are a few ways that I invest in figuring out what I have learned from my experiences, what I am continuing to learn from them, and how I can share some of that with others:
We can’t always do more, and doing more isn’t always a good idea. In fact, the cult of doing more often obscures the process of learning, which of course, limits the possibility of teaching.
Alternately, if we would all focus our energies on learning and then teaching from what we do, we could all do a lot more with our lives.
Recently, we have seen a handful of elected officials “step up” and speak their moral truth about the current resident of the White House and the political state of our country. Many of us have celebrated, or at least sighed in relief, as someone (other than John McCain) in the president’s party broke silence and spoke from a place of clarity, honesty, and individuality. We have been relieved and have applauded leaders who we may have never imagined applauding. I listened to Jeff Flake’s powerful speech in its entirety. I actually think I even voted for Bob Corker the second time, but have long since stopped applauding him, and instead have felt betrayed by the disappearance of his candor and individuality – even if I didn’t always agree with his position. The guy I voted for showed back up.
We should all pause, however, as more people step up and lead (by retiring) and thus feel “liberated” to speak their truth.
What are we actually seeing? Eventual honesty? Contextual morality? Conditional leadership? When these men are finally “liberated” from the office we elected them to, from the privilege of leading our country, THEN they are honest?! THEN they will speak truth to power? THEN their morals matter?
Don’t get me wrong, I am glad some people are finally speaking up, but let’s be honest about what it tells us about them, and the offices to which they were elected. Their sense of liberation and their delayed and diluted honesty illustrate a clear lack of integrity as it relates to their elected office. Integrity is “what you do when no one is looking” as the saying goes. Integrity is “the choice between what is convenient and what is right” according to former NFL coach Tony Dungy.
When people speak out only when it is convenient (after they’ve announced retirement, for example), they aren’t leading. They are convenient opportunists, moral relativists, demonstrative of the demise of social, cultural, and moral leadership, (and thus representative democracy) that leaves us with corruption, elitism, nepotism, and the perpetual belief that the ends justify the means (making money, getting elected, etc. is the top priority and will compensate for those other pesky problems like integrity).
We need to step back and observe this behavior, like most anything, through the critical lens of how we would talk about it with our children. Would we tell our children: once you are no longer in Ms. Smith’s math class, or after you win the big game, then you should acknowledge that you or another was cheating? Would we tell them to get elected to class president or to any other leadership position no matter what it takes, even if it compromises their values? That they can just attempt recoup their principles once the position is successfully attained – or when they are done with it? Don’t litter if someone is looking? Help someone who needs it only if someone is looking? Do it for the reward? Do it only if it benefits you?
If this sort of self-centered relativism isn’t what we want to teach our children, we should at least recognize that this is what we are modeling for them and currently applauding as leadership.
If instead we want to teach them integrity, we had better start by modeling it ourselves, and then demand it of our leaders. We should not accept, much less celebrate, eventual, conditional, convenient honesty that suggests integrity was dead all along.
We all know the story about change: it’s the only constant, it’s happening faster than ever, if we don’t like it then we will like being obsolete even less.
It’s all true. But, most of us and most of our companies haven’t really internalized the implications. If any of these thoughts on change are to be meaningful, we best change the way we approach this not-so-new world order, not merely acknowledge that it exists. We have to change ourselves.
I was working with a company recently that operates call centers to provide direct support to their customers. As we talked about growth and change in their company more broadly, we explored if and how they were, or could be, learning from these front-line employees. What were they hearing directly from customers that the company really needed to understand?
We’ve all heard the saying about the importance of having “an ear to the ground” so we can sense imminent changes in our work environments and markets. Who has their ears to the ground more than those meeting our customers where they are? Dealing with their problems? Frustrations?
Too many of our people on the front-lines think they don't have the power or position to speak up in our organizations and don’t have the ability to create change in their own work. As a result, many of us are missing a huge opportunity to become more resilient, adaptable, and creative organizations. When we don’t listen to our customers and the employees who interface directly with them, we run the risk of missing indicators of emergent change in our markets, products, and even broader society that can lead our products, services and companies toward their next iteration.
Through our discussion, this company realized that their listening to front-line employees was spottier than they would like - that the value of listening to employees was more ad hoc and leader-by-leader than a consistent, strategic value of the firm. The implications from this discussion and this kind of organizational self-awareness are pretty vast.
How do we as an organization demonstrate listening as a value? How do we train our people and set management expectations? How do we hire and promote our people to support such a strategic value? How do we intentionally recognize good listening as good leadership? How do we openly celebrate the knowledge that our people at all levels are stepping up and sharing with us?
People at all levels of our companies need formal and informal outlets to provide feedback, ask questions, and share ideas for solutions. This is just strategically smart. It’s not merely about being nice to our employees. Not only will listening to our employees make our company more resilient and adaptive, it will also make for happier employees and better products and services. When they know their ideas and insights are respected (even if not always acted upon), our people will more actively identify customer patterns and frequent issues that we may never see, and solve them in ways we may never have thought of. They will own their work.
So, instilling a culture of listening that is supported by training, accountability, and processes up and down our organization is paramount to leading emergent change –the change we otherwise may not see coming.
Change isn’t what it used to be, neither are our organizations nor the environments in which we work and compete.
Change is no longer a discreet organizational development concept: what are the structures, policies, and practices that need changing (mostly from the top) to accomplish our business goals?
Change is emergent: how do we systematically identify the needs, gather the insights, and prepare and empower our people at all levels to make it happen? Emergent change and our ability to respond to it must be cultivated as part of our cultures, core to the people we recruit and hire, intrinsic to how we develop and support our existing people, and strategically aligned with our business model.
Despite this reality, it seems that most of the “best-selling” approaches for leading or managing change make the concept seem formulaic and finite rather than dynamic and perpetual. They make it seem organizational rather than relational. Even as many of these models readily identify change as the only constant in our contemporary business environment, they often present solutions as if it were time bound and discreet.
One of the most popular is the Kotter Change Model, which defines an 8-step process for leading successful change: 1. Create a sense of urgency. 2. Build a powerful coalition. 3. Create a vision for change. 4. Communicate the vision. 5. Empower action by removing barriers. 6. Generate short-term wins. 7. Build on the change. 8. Make it stick.
I don’t actually disagree with any of this and totally understand how such a list makes a powerful product for those who are struggling to lead change. I wonder, however, if those struggling the most to lead change aren’t often the ones who need a deeper understanding of it. Yes, in most cases, you will need to take Kotter’s steps to achieve the change you want, but is that all it takes? I don’t think so.
You know what will kill your change process before you ever take that first step? 1. A lack of trust in leadership. 2. Poor relationships with and among our people. 3. Ineffective communication from the highest level of values and vision down to day-to-day operations.
Let’s consider some basic questions:
I think for most of us the answer is at least “not likely” for all of these – which undermines the first four steps in the 8-step change process!
So, while I appreciate the concise steps for change provided by Kotter’s model and others that are equally consumable, they mostly represent the tactical investments that live on the tail end of any real change process. They ignore foundational concepts of readiness. If I might adapt the old adage: “Change is 90% preparation, 10% perspiration.”
The 8-steps are mostly the perspiration.
As leaders, we have to be mindful every day and in every interaction of what kind of organization we are building. We have to understand our power to engage and influence our people, to share power with them, and to prepare them to help lead and navigate change with us. We must work daily to generate energy and ownership of our vision, strategies, and work with others.
As leaders, we have to be willing to do the immeasurable and un-measureable work of building trust, modeling strong relationships, and investing in culture. If we do this work, we, and our organizations, will be ready for change as it comes. It will just be part of how we do business.
Power is at the core of your organizational culture whether or not you accept or even recognize it. In fact, if you don’t accept or recognize it, it’s likely that you are the one benefiting from it. You’re “in power”.
Regardless of whether you do or not, I promise that others see it, and they see you through it.
So, the question is: are you the facilitator of a powerful culture or are you progenitor of a culture of power? Understanding the difference and how your people interpret your culture, and your position as a leader in it, will determine the nature and effectiveness (or not) of your leadership over the long term.
Here are a few distinctions that might help clarify:
A powerful culture believes in its people.
A culture of power believes in the system, structure, and organization.
A powerful culture grows power.
A culture of power consolidates and organizes it.
A powerful culture believes that knowledge and ideas are everywhere in your organization.
A culture of power believes that knowledge and ideas come from the top.
A powerful culture celebrates people at all levels.
A culture of power celebrates a select few.
A powerful culture focuses on relationships, responsibility, and accountability.
A culture of power focuses on accountability.
A powerful culture seeks transparency.
A culture of power keeps secrets.
A powerful culture communicates.
A culture of power distributes information.
In a powerful culture, our people feel a sense of ownership for their work.
In a culture of power, work feels directive and even compulsory.
In a powerful culture, there is joy.
In a culture of power, there is fear.
In a powerful culture, everyone feels responsible for leading and following.
In a culture of power, there are a few leaders and many followers.
In a powerful culture, everyone teaches and learns.
In a culture of power, some are teachers and others are learners.
In a powerful culture, leadership is emergent.
In a culture of power, leadership is constructed.
In a powerful culture, change is both bottom-up and top-down.
In a culture of power, change is top-down.
In a powerful culture, people naturally create.
In a culture of power, people wait for others “above them” to create.
In a powerful culture, people are proactive.
In a culture of power, people are reactive.
In a powerful culture, people seek truth.
In a culture of power, people seek affirmation.