Have you ever struggled to establish a trusting relationship with a perfectionist boss? Some people believe perfectionism is a positive trait. They believe it fuels us to raise the bar in the pursuit of excellence. However, if you have ever tried to manage the expectations of a perfectionist in your life, then you can attest that it does not drive effectiveness. On the contrary, perfectionism kills excellence, harms relationships, compromises results in the long term, and generates frustration and disappointment.
For someone who has strong perfectionist traits, nothing is good if it is not perfect. The drive for perfection sets unreal standards for the individual and those around them. A perfectionist will focus on the task and results over the team and the individual. This person will tend to lose sight of the forest for the trees.
They will be personally tuned in to all the details, taking on more than they can handle. This leader and their team will work hard for strenuous, long hours to accomplish the task… but it will still not be good enough.
For a perfectionist, establishing close relationships is tough. Perfectionists tend to alienate those around them. They do not trust others can complete the task flawlessly, so they try to control it by micromanaging each step of the process. People then disengage and disconnect, feeling oppressed and disempowered.
At an individual level, perfectionists are mainly trying to prove themselves and others right. Their self-worth is built on being seen as competent and flawless, by winning over others and delivering what they believe is expected of them: perfection. Perfectionists will often feel irritated, frustrated, and disappointed with themselves and their team for under-delivering according to unachievable standards.
Why do people think perfectionism drives sustainable results?
There is some common ground between a culture that embodies achievement and the one that promotes perfectionism: the drive, determination, and energy towards accomplishing the task and the commitment towards the quality of the outcome.
However, an organization that fosters a culture of achievement is continuously setting excellence standards (vs unrealistic standards of perfectionism). They look for new ways to become better, developing a growth mindset as the principle that underlies the culture. Fostering psychological safety and collaboration is key for teams and individuals to excel. Failure in these types of organizations becomes part of the game. It is seen and lived by its members as an opportunity to learn, adapt, and continue improving. For a perfectionist, failure is difficult to embrace. It is directly related to one of their fears: not being good enough.
What are the differences between a perfectionist leader and an effective leader?
Perfectionism kills excellence. How can we move from being a perfectionist to an effective leader?
Commit to fewer goals (no more than 3 at once): Do not lose sight of the WHY (purpose). Reflect on how each goal contributes to your purpose and prioritize your goals in terms of impact. When setting goals, frame them in terms of growth (e.g: improving from X to Y) and make sure they are realistic and possible, considering the timeframe.
Focus & practice letting go: When delegating tasks to your team, start small. Choose tasks/projects that represent a lower risk for you. Then agree on a process with your team where you can jointly review the progress in a way that everyone feels comfortable.
Get to know your team better: Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Explore how each person can contribute to creating impact. Test and learn. Challenge yourself to think outside of the box and invite others to try new things. People experience a flow state when working on something they feel passionate about.
Ask for feedback from your peers & direct reports: Make time for After Action Reviews after each major task/project completion. Appreciate what has worked well and reflect on what could you have done differently to contribute effectively to the project. Ask for specific feedback on your improvement goal from others. Let others know your developmental path and encourage them to offer feedback when they experience you moving away from your goal.
Be kind to yourself: Practice self-compassion. Perfectionists work towards unrealistic standards which generate frustration and feeds the “inner critic” that shouts, “you are not good enough”. Practice expressing gratitude and connecting with what works. Journaling is a powerful way to reflect and it reduces stress. Try this simple journaling exercise:
In the morning, ask yourself: What would make today a wonderful day? What do I feel grateful for? At night: What good things happened today?
Our VUCA context requires leaders to develop a learning agility and be able to anticipate and adapt to constant changes. In order to do this, we need to be able to cope with failure and setbacks, learn, and strengthen our resilience. Perfectionist traits hinder change and effectiveness but can be overcome by developing the right mindsets (growth & learner) and being compassionate with our own self and others.
When we want to explain culture in our conversations with clients, we often use the metaphor of the sea. We ask participants to put on their imaginary wetsuit for a moment and imagine exploring the waters of a crystal clear ocean. We project a beautiful image of the ocean and ask that they share what they are seeing. They tell us about spectacularly colorful fish, corals, a variety of algae, and rocks. But hardly anyone mentions the water. Clearly, the water is there as an important part of that ecosystem, but it is almost invisible. Water is like the culture of an organization, it is always there, but often we don’t see it.
Measuring the gap makes the invisible, visible
Perhaps you are familiar with the following quotes: “if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist”. Or “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. Or in its positive version: “what’s measured gets managed”. That is our goal when we combine the OCI® (Organizational Culture Inventory®), OEI® (Organizational Effectiveness Inventory®), and LSI® (Life Styles Inventory®) tools in our culture transformation projects: we make the intangibles, tangible. We make something that can be as invisible as culture and individuals’ thinking and behavior styles “real” to be able to manage them properly.
I would like to share a recent case to illustrate how we work. A company founded 5 years ago has been working on defining its noble purpose, values, and the associated behaviors. Their ambitious strategy for the next cycle is making them question whether the company’s culture will be ready for such a feat. The culture journey that we propose includes the following elements:
Describe and quantify the desired culture. Although the company believes the work they have been doing to define their desired culture is sufficient, we encourage them to use hard data to articulate their ideal culture. This is critical to later identify and measure the gap with the current culture and avoid any type of subjectivity. In order to do this, we use the OCI Ideal tool and qualitative research (interviews and focus groups).
Measure and understand the current culture. We use the current OCI and OEI and qualitative research tools (interviews and focus groups) to understand the behavioral norms that employees believe are expected or implicitly required of them to succeed and ‘fit in’ at the organization.
The results of these three tools are shown on a visual graph that allows us to “see and measure” the thinking and behavioral styles that are driving the performance of leaders, as well as the organization itself.
Why effective measurement is so important
It makes the culture challenge “real”. Measurement brings to the surface and measures what was previously hidden. This reduces subjectivity and sets a benchmark measure.
It provides awareness about the gap. Not only does it show the gap between what leaders say they value (ideal culture) and the realities of the current cultural norms driving the behavior of individuals, but it also leaders better understand how the organizational culture challenge links to their individual development challenges.
It sets accountability. Organizations and leaders take responsibility for their behaviors and the data provides the drive for change.
It gives clarity about the path that needs to be followed and helps to prioritize where to focus the effort.
It tracks progress, re-assessing with the tools after developing the culture change plan.
Culture can be as invisible as water in the sea, yet its immensely important role is ever-present. Using a clear and defined approach to defining the ideal culture, the current culture, the leadership styles and behaviors, and identifying gaps gives us a clear path forward and makes the invisible, visible.
Watch this live webinar recording where two of Axialent’s culture transformation experts, Thierry de Beyssac and Anabel Dumlao, will be talking to Tim Kuppler, Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, about the importance of intentionally managing culture and leadership development in an integrated way.
There is a deep link between leaders’ change and culture change. The impact of their behaviors is probably the most difficult aspect for leaders at the beginning of a culture transformation process.
Leaders usually understand intellectually the logical connection between their behaviors and the resulting organizational culture. In our work at Axialent, we have never seen leaders rejecting their responsibility in that. What seems harder for leaders to envision from the beginning are the implications for their own personal transformation.
Communication Is Not Enough
The initial tendency many leaders show, even when they are enthusiastic about the culture change process, is interpreting that leading it means just politically supporting the change. That they only need to be openly and explicitly in favor of the transformation. A well-intentioned leader may think their scope of responsibility includes declaring their support and demanding that others support it too. There is a general interpretation that this is simply a “communication process”. Enthusiastic leaders tend to easily accept the need to re-design structures, processes, and symbols. All of those are necessary conditions, but are not enough.
The moment of truth comes when leaders become aware that they need to address a deep insight into their personal beliefs and values as a necessary step for culture transformation. The review and transformation of leaders’ individual mental models is the real “work” they’ll have to do to get ahead on the culture transformation highway. Any culture change process that omits this condition will be weak. Without it, there are more chances for resistance to the transformation. People in the organization may perceive that “all that culture stuff” is just another example of “lip service”. The attempt at culture transformation then runs the risk of becoming another case in which leaders quickly learn to declare and describe the change they want, but appear incompetent to model it consistently through their behaviors.
For the new behaviors to emerge and be perceived as sincere and legitimate, the mental models in which they are grounded need to change too. For this awareness and commitment process to be possible and agile, the visible connection between the organizational culture gap and the individual leadership style gap needs to be identified. The sooner this happens, the better. This connection must then become a reference to share mutual feedback, to assess progress, and evaluate impact.
One of the most important learnings I’ve had in the 12 years I’ve been managing culture transformation processes, is that culture is built upon the messages RECEIVED by people, not merely on the messages “DELIVERED”. This means that at the end of the day, what matters most is how the organization is reading the leader and how people are interpreting their behaviors. These interpretations could be quite different from how they were intended. A leader’s behavior is a central message carrier in building culture. At the same time, the subjective interpretation of this behavior shows us a critical path to culture change that unavoidably involves the leader’s personal transformation.
Leaders must change
So, to be effective culture builders and transformation agents, leaders need to have more than highly developed communication skills. Even if they perceive themselves as “good communicators,” that’s not enough. Transformational leaders need to step up and be aware of how much their behavior alone is sending messages. Messages that are much louder than those coming from their nice words.
Watch this live webinar recordning where two of Axialent’s culture transformation experts, Thierry de Beyssac and Anabel Dumlao, will be talking to Tim Kuppler, Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, about the importance of intentionally managing culture and leadership development in an integrated way.
In a previous article, I discussed the benefits of an advanced coaching leadership strategy. Now, let’s take it to the next level and examine how to achieve an advanced coaching leadership strategy.
Take the time to truly understand the gaps
Every company is in a different situation with different challenges. Even so, the first step for any company should be to consciously understand where they are, where they need to go, and how to fill the gap between the two. The best way to start this process is to run diagnostics, examining two dimensions:
First, stop the never-ending intellectual discussion about your company culture and measure it. I have worked with different culture assessment tools and the top one I recommend is the OCI® (Organizational Culture Inventory) from Human Synergistics. In my experience, companies can spend months and years talking about their need for cultural transformation without reaching any actionable conclusion and results. Using a culture assessment tool allows you and your team to clearly understand the desired culture, speak a common “culture language,” and measure concrete gaps to fill.
In parallel, individual and team leadership assessments and transformations are a key part of the process. We all know that the number one influencer of a company’s culture is its leaders’ behaviors and mental models. There are several excellent individual and team assessment tools, and the one I would recommend for transforming a leadership culture is the LSI® (Life Style Inventory), also from Human Synergistics. It allows you to make the connections between your desired culture and your individual and collective leadership transformation. It is then easy and straight forward to make the connection between the 12 leadership styles measured by the LSI® and the mindsets and behaviors corresponding to the “Command & Control” as well as the “Advanced Coaching” Leadership strategies.
Then take action
After completing the diagnostic phase, along with the accompanying debrief sessions about your results, it’s time to take action. First, I recommend taking your team on a strategic off-site workshop to define your leadership culture transformation needs and goals. Use a “From-To” analysis, driven by a solid business case for change.
From this concrete exercise, the executive committee can formalize a kind of “Manifesto.” It will summarize the commitments in terms of mindsets and behaviors that the members agree to. They will need to adopt them individually and collectively, role modeling the desired culture and its impact on the company’s strategic success.
The next step is about empowering the executive committee to walk the talk. In my opinion, the best way of achieving this is through individual and team coaching. They will build a leadership culture and cascade it progressively to the next levels, the executive team leading by example. This has been proven to be the most concrete and effective way to transform a company’s culture quickly.
However, leaders’ (of all levels) mindsets and behaviors are not the only drivers of culture. In parallel, the company will need to align the company, business, and people systems/policies/processes and symbols to the desired culture.
Moving from a Command & Control to an Advanced Coaching Leadership style is part of a business strategy that focuses on the decentralization of decision, control, and accountability by engaging and empowering employees.
Doing this will lead to the transformation of your organizational culture.
In a VUCA world, you can’t afford to wait half a decade to achieve such a culture shift.
An interview with Thierry de Beyssac
More and more in today’s business world, we see the traditional “command and control” leadership style isn’t working. In this interview with Axialent consultant Thierry de Beyssac, he shares his thoughts about the need to embrace new strategies and skills in order to be successful leaders in today’s fast-changing environment and the benefits of an Advanced Coaching Leadership Strategy.
First, can you tell us what the Advanced Coaching Leadership Strategy is?
Advanced Coaching Leadership is a kind of culture and strategy. It focuses on the decentralization of decision making, reduction of control, and increase of accountability by engaging and empowering people, thus liberating an agile organization and embracing four of the six “Harvard Leadership Styles”.
In case some of our readers are not clear on what the six “Harvard Leadership Styles” are, can you describe them for us?
The Harvard Leadership Styles, first developed by David Goleman and published in the Harvard Business Review, describes both negative and positive leadership styles:
Coercive: The “Do what I tell you” style demands immediate compliance.
Pacesetting: The “Do as I do, now!” style sets extremely high standards for performance.
Coaching: The “Try this” style makes people accountable and helps them find their own way to succeed.
Democratic: The “What do you think?” style builds trust and commitment through participation.
Affiliative: The “People come first” style creates harmony & meaning and builds emotional bonds with employees.
Authoritative: The “Come and do with me” style aligns and empowers around an inspiring vision.
Which of the Harvard Leadership Styles does a “command and control” leader use?
The command and control style leader uses coercion when setting tasks and demands that employees do as they do, “now.” They set extremely high standards for performance. This controlled, centralized decision making and solution giving fosters authoritarian micromanagement. It creates and feeds into a competitive and perfectionistic culture where employees fear failure and blame others.
And what are the traits of a leader following the Advanced Coaching Leadership Strategy?
A leader following the Advanced Coaching Leadership Strategy (ACLS) decentralizes decisions and control, prioritizes accountability, achievement, and agility. This type of leader creates conditions for others to succeed. Instead of authoritarian, an ACLS leader will be authoritative within a clear collective vision and sense of purpose. He/she will allow for personal growth, self fulfillment, and the realization of self and employee potential. This creates a culture where feedback flourishes.
In what kind of business environment does this style work best?
The Advanced Coaching Leadership Strategy is imperative for large, complex, multi-generational, and global organizations. It creates an interconnected diverse workforce and collaborative models, which allows for an openness to company-wide culture transformation.
How does ACLS translate into the culture of an organization?
Traditional hierarchical leadership cultures tend to have centralized structures with top-down communication and micro-managing (“my truth is THE truth” leaders). In contrast, the ACLS supports cultures to have a decentralized and “collegial” governance model, with visionary leaders who empower others. ACLS leaders understand that coaching employees to grow their skills is a way to engage with them to take accountability, give the best of themselves, achieve challenging objectives, and will lead to successful teamwork.
Advanced Coaching Leadership sounds quite challenging. What kinds of mindsets and competencies are required for the ACLS?
Self-awareness and creativity are key; an ACLS leader must be able to foster collective intelligence, collective creativity, and collective accountability. They will also need an unconditional responsibility mindset: the Player vs. Victim posture. They will be able to admit that, as a leader, you cannot know it all, see it all, nor be right and creative all the time. It is key to have this Learner posture, to foster a permanent two-way feedback culture and be able to delegate.
Harvard research has shown that the best leaders master the following four, or more, of the Harvard Leadership Styles: Coaching, Democratic, Affiliative, Authoritative. These leaders run companies with decentralized and empowered cultures. They achieve high people engagement and build a strong culture of consciousness of self (mindfulness): self-awareness, self-development, unconditional responsibility, ontological humility, sense of purpose and self-actualization.
Are there any situations where the other 2 Harvard Leadership Styles work for an organization?
The Harvard research found that Coercive and Pacesetting leaders can be effective in some crisis or severe turnaround situations when combined with the other 4 leadership styles. However, these two leadership strategies have the most negative impact on the 6 effective organizational culture components (Flexibility, Responsibility, Standards, Rewards, Clarity, Commitment).
Although the Coercive and Pacesetting styles can create short term gain, ACLS leaders understand that short-term failure can further long-term learning and winning (e.g. Design Thinking kind of innovation).
You have talked a lot about the pros of ALCS, are there any downsides?
Leading a business using the ACLS requires well-trained, versatile leaders willing to use these leadership styles while facing the high pressure of the “get it done now” economy. As I mentioned just now, there will be some moments when it is necessary to understand that short-term failure can further long-term learning and winning. Developing people is often seen as too time-consuming and resource-draining, so ACLS demands a strong leader who is willing to free up time for people management. This kind of leader needs to be willing to make a short-term time and resource investment while looking at the long-term gain.
So, in the end, what you are recommending is a change of culture. What would you recommend to a leader interested in this kind of leadership and culture?
I would say, don’t talk about it and don’t “do” it… measure it, own it, and be it.
Culture is the messages that people receive about how they are expected to think, act, and interact in order to fit in at a given organization. It’s that simple, that foundational.
The “Command & Control” leadership mindsets and behaviors tell you a lot about how you are expected to think, act, and interact. The Advanced Coaching Leadership Strategy does too… albeit in a very different way.
Our world is changing faster than ever and with those changes, we need to learn to adapt quickly and intelligently. Scenario planning 2.0, as my colleague Fran Cherny describes it in his recent webinar, is all about how fast we can read, listen, and integrate new information and adjust our plans quickly. But what exactly is the role of scenario planning 2.0 in execution excellence?
The role of scenario planning 2.0 in execution excellence
Ongoing reviews and adjustments are an essential part of execution and that’s where applying scenario planning 2.0 is most effective. To do so, we must first slow down enough to be able to smoothly read, listen, and integrate new information. Only then will we able to rapidly respond and adjust execution moving forward.
Traditional scenario planning is a crucial part of strategy and business planning. It helps us consider different options and possibilities, depending on the marketplace’s current situation. Traditional scenario planning is part of good business planning; key to a company’s plan to operationalize its strategy. However, scenario planning 2.0 is different. Learning how to implement it is an important skill that any great leader needs to practice in the pursuit of execution excellence during times of fast change and uncertainly.
Axialent’s approach to execution includes developing an execution infrastructure, as well as managing the ongoing implementation of work. Part five of the model below shows how execution is managed in an organization. It is during these implementation cycles that scenario planning 2.0 will have the greatest impact. Organizations must have meetings to discuss how to manage new information and make decisions with regards to what processes, mindsets, and behaviors need to change. Once these decisions have been made, leaders can adjust the areas of their execution plan that require attention and continue to review and improve them throughout the cycles. Here is a model that illustrates our approach:
The impact of new information
Reading, listening, and integrating new information as it arises can impact aspects of a business’s execution infrastructure. Most importantly, integrating new information can change in people’s mindsets and behaviors, and the processes that support collaboration. The two essential aspects of execution infrastructure that are most affected by these changes are people and process (seen in the model above). Making adjustments in response to these changes does not require stopping execution implementation. Instead, it highlights the areas that will most be impacted by new information, (i.e. people, process, and direction).
The role of scenario planning 2.0 in execution excellence is an important one. Although traditional scenario planning has been a core part of strategy and business planning, in the current conditions, scenario planning 2.0 is core to execution. By leveraging this practice and the components of execution infrastructure, we can quickly make adjustments to processes, mindsets, and behaviors. This, in turn, builds capability as business moves forward and makes directional changes.
In recent months, we have been dealing with a lot of uncertainty and a fast-changing world. As my colleague, Thierry, and I discussed in the article Survivor Syndrome: Overcoming Organizational Trauma in Times of Crisis, even though people are still struggling with how to adjust to these changes, we need to find a way to reconnect with our future, vision, and possibilities. In addition, people are dealing with guilt about colleagues who have been laid off, and pressure to do additional work to keep the organization alive and hopefully, thriving. Planning for the future in crisis has never been so challenging, or so important.
Planning for the Future in Crisis
How can we create a future together when there is still so much uncertainty? Can we plan and create a vision if we don’t yet know how to adapt to the recent changes? How can we help our team members feel less anxious and find a way forward that adds value for everyone?
There is a way. It needs to address business planning, but also build trust within the team and inspire and energize team members. It requires learning a new skill and putting a new process in place that many leaders are not familiar with… yet. It all can be learned through practice.
We’ll call this process: “Back to the Future: the art of scenario planning 2.0”. You may remember the movie “Back to the Future 2,” where Doc Brown taught us that the present and future as we know it could change in many different directions with new events we didn’t plan for. (If you haven’t seen the movie, you now have a plan for the weekend!) This has always happened to some degree, but the speed of change has never been as fast and disruptive as it is right now.
Many of you might be familiar with traditional scenario planning. The intention and process we need to apply in the current situation are very different. The issue now is not how many scenarios we can build based on assumptions and premises, but how fast we can read, listen, and integrate new information and adjust our plans quickly. Doing this simple 3 part exercise with our teams will help.
1. Understand and align common assumptions
Check people’s assumptions to understand why they are doing what they are doing. Do you think people will act the same if one thinks the vaccine for Covid-19 will be ready in 6 months and the other in 18 months? What happens when half of your team thinks that people will not travel again and will be spending more time at home and the other half thinks things will go back to normal sooner or later?
All of these different opinions lead people to make decisions that affect how you run the business and their level of engagement and commitment.
Creating the conversation and allowing the team to discuss common assumptions will put them to work in the same direction.
The question to ask your team is: What do you think will happen in the world in the next 3 months that will affect our business?
2. Cascading common assumptions into execution teams:
Once we align the common assumptions, we need to analyze how this will impact the work of each team.
For example, if we believe that people won’t be able to travel for at least 6 more months, how that will affect consumption based on the industry I’m in?
Then, the next question to ask is: What does my team need to do differently, based on the assumptions agreed upon, and how this will affect our business? Each leader needs to identify 2 or 3 critical things that the team needs to start approaching differently.
3. Cascading our team needs to our leadership focus:
If the team needs to do some things differently, we need to think quickly about what we need to do to make it happen.
When we are in such fast-changing environments, the speed of change is a competitive advantage or a liability.
The key question is: What do I need to do differently in the next 2 weeks to support my team and make changes with speed and agility?
Remember, you are the main lever for your team to adapt quickly.
By doing this simple exercise with your team, you will provide direction, a sense of alignment, and also, something that contributes to the common strategy. You will move from uncertainty to action and help everyone feel like part of the solution.
Planning for the future in crisis is always a challenge, but connecting with your team using the process outlined above provides a roadmap of how it can be done. This is not meant to be a one-time exercise. While you are reading this article, many assumptions I have right now might be different from when I originally wrote this, even if it’s only a week later. The faster things are changing, the more often you should run this exercise. As a leader of an organization, I would run it at least every 6 weeks under the current circumstances. Find the frequency that works for you. As you do this, you will be strengthening the muscle of agility, adaptability, and innovation. What else you can ask for? “In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” – Eric Hoffer
To contact Axialent about facilitating this powerful exercise with your team, click here.
In the first post of this series, I shared an anecdote of how I once heard an executive in the US say “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. On the second post, we briefly explored some ideas about how the crisis and how we respond to it might have a long-lasting effect, with downstream effects impacting our character. In this post, I would like to share some thoughts on how a practice of empathy and gratitude can be a character-building ‘workout’.
As the pandemic continues to wreak havoc in our healthcare and economic systems at the macro-level, the downstream impacts it has on our lives are extremely varied. However, it is difficult to keep in mind the different impact ‘modalities’ it has. The conversations, articles, podcasts, news, etc. from the last weeks have gotten me thinking about the different realities people are experiencing – and it’s prompted me both to empathize more and be grateful for my own situation (still working on it!). We can look at some of these different realities through a large number of different ‘lenses’ or perspectives to help with the mental and emotional exercise. Let’s start with the lens of work situation by looking at a very very high level way of grouping different types of work circumstances many of us are facing right now.
Knowledge / remote workers
This is a segment of the population in many countries that has the great fortune of being able to continue their work from home. Some were already doing it before the crisis, but many people in several countries are now full-time remote workers, for the first time. Those who had not worked remotely before might be struggling with the basics: i.e. setting up a proper physical space, improving their setup to have proper internet connectivity (have you been on a videoconference recently where someone is struggling to get good wifi signal inside their house?), proper headset, etc. For some others, the challange might be not only the setup, but also the learning curve to work remotely: I’ve heard from many of our clients how they have struggled to teach their people how to work remotely overnight, with some even paying online courses to teach their workforce how to operate in this environment. There are some others who now struggle to manage a workforce which became a distributed one overnight.
On top of this we can layer other type of complications – a Wall Street firm HR Director recently shared with me a situation they are facing with their younger workers. Many of them might find themselves working out of a densely populated urban area in which they live with roommates in a small space (think NY or San Francisco, for example). In their small apartments, they might not even have a suitable space to camp out with their laptop and take a call, or said space is not enough to have all roommates trying to do it simultaneously. Others might find themselves locked in their house with their kids running around with no school – trying now to double not only as remote workers but as homeschool teachers. I have heard hundreds of variants of this type of situation, but even though it is undeniably disruptive and stressful, it is a great situation to be in, especially if we consider others.
Still with a job, risking it
There are many others who are fortunate enough to still have a job, but it can’t be performed remotely, and it needs to be performed. Thousands of healthcare workers (facing greater risks than anyone), bank branch employees, supermarket employees, essential service provider workers (water, electricity, internet) among many others. They not only have to deal with potentially having their kids at home, but to continue performing their job – and essentially doing it knowing that everyday that passes they risk contagion, with all the uncertainty that comes with it. “Will I get mild symptoms or end in the hospital? Can I pass it on to my kids and or older relatives living with us?” are thoughts we all might have, but I can only imagine the way they are amplified for those having to leave home everyday to go to work.
Now unemployed – and unprotected
Then we have millions who are now (or about to be) unemployed… and depending on which country they are in, and their situation, this can be a downward spiral with potential ramifications worse than the virus’ most common course. A startup CEO in Mexico recently told me “in my country, poverty will kill more people than the virus”. There are billions of people who live either under the poverty line, or who barely surpass it yet require income on a daily or weekly basis to survive. An interruption in income of a few days can mean they can’t pay rent or other essential expenses. Losing employment can mean they lose their medical insurance, whether private or public…
Sickness and death is yet another lens through which we can try to empathize. Both can touch us all – whether we live in the 1% strata or live in poverty, employed or unemployed, no one is immune to this. We’ve heard about infected (and recently dead) royals and celebrities all the way to the mass graves for the less fortunate ones.
There are additional, countless lenses through which we can try to empathize with others during these times: age (i.e. older people seem to have higher mortality rates), having access or not to testing and healthcare if needed, being able to take care of oneself even for basic chores like shopping, the political situation of where you live (those under totalitarian regimes might be on slippery slope to lose even more freedom), etc.
Whatever the lenses we choose to practice empathy, they can be helpful to get some understanding of what others are living during this crisis. If you are reading this, there is a very reasonable chance you are in one of the more fortunate situations: hopefully you have the financial means to weather this storm out, or you still have a job you can do remotely. If this is the case, remember, even if you are experiencing hardships, count your blessings: there are probably millions who would see your current situation as an answer to their prayers, if they could switch places with you today. Realizing that can help put things in perspective – and it’s one of many ways in which we can individually do our work to avoid letting this crisis go to waste.
It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you — inside or out. Marcus Aurelius
One of the most tangible aspects of a crisis like the one we are living is the material damage it causes: sickness, death, lost jobs, etc. There is, however, a less tangible but also very important dimension: the net balance a crisis has on our character as individuals, and the overall impact on society as a whole stemming from this.
Many phrases such as ‘adversity reveals character’, or variants of it, seem to indicate that a crisis will bring out who we truly are – and in many cases this won’t be a pretty sight. For example, in the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic we can find dozens of stories of people who are taking advantage of the situation for their own benefit.
The flip side to this is seeing others rise to the occasion. Every tragedy brings its host of heroes, even if most of them remain unknown. Think of the first responders during 9/11, firefighters and others helping people out of crumbled buildings during an earthquake, rescue personnel saving people during floods – or, right now, thousands of healthcare workers, law enforcement personnel, food supply chain workers and countless others who are risking their lives for others.
We see responses ranging from the vile to the heroic and everything in between. This, however, does not prove that the type of responses we see is an inevitable result of a crisis ‘revealing the true colors of individuals’. Even under the most dire of circumstances, we all still have a choice. In other words, critical situations highly correlate with individuals showing more of who they are, but it does not invariably cause it. This might seem like word play from someone with nothing better to do than playing semantics, yet the implications are deeply profound.
Circumstances do not force me into acting one way or another (for better or worse) – I still have a choice. And what I choose has an impact on my character, every single time. Given that crises confront us with an abnormally high number of choices to make every day, we are basically on an accelerated path to build or destroy our character – and we do not have the option of choosing not to be on this path. Either by action or inaction we are doing something to our character. We are much better off by becoming aware of this and improving our choices every day.
Let’s look at this at different levels to illustrate:
At a personal level
A crisis is a perfect (and unavoidable) daily practice of how we react in the face of stress. It is an emotional gym that gives us the opportunity to ‘put in our reps’ every day. Pandemic panic shopping is making it increasingly hard to find vital supplies? This is a text-book definition of a situation to be legitimately stressed about: it can kickstart a downward spiral of fear, horror, self-pity, anger.
It’s also an opportunity to practice how to refocus my mind on what I can control and operate in that space, as limited as it might be: first rep of the day. Kids running around the house with no school – while trying to take a conference call? Check, that is very stressing – how am I going to respond to this? Second rep of the day. Sales projections are down? Third rep of the day: practice how I will manage my stress. You get the picture.
The difference with a physical gym is that here we don’t have the alternative to skip it: we are in it, and we will be putting in our reps. They can be reps in which we practice how to get more stressed, angrier, fearful… or they can be reps in which we try to give the best response we humanly can to every prompt. Every choice we make to every one of these prompts, every one of our responses, is a character building block.
At a relationship and / or family level
The lockdown half of the world is currently experiencing has resulted, amongst other things, in an impact to our relationships and / or family life. Young couples who are now living together out of necessity. Families with several generations living under the same roof while weathering out the situation. Couples in the process of getting divorced having to share the same living space, as their separation proceedings slow down or are temporarily halted. Death of loved ones. Families losing the income of one or both parents. Kids homeschooling putting an additional strain on family dynamics. Many of these scenarios can be stressing, depressing, anxiety-inducing, or worse.
If your specific current set of circumstances has made your life more complicated, how are you responding to it? Note that the question is responding to it, not how did you respond to it? This means that you have responded to it, you are still doing it, and more likely you will keep on doing it for the days and weeks and maybe months ahead. Is there a way to respond to it better? Can you address the content of the challenge (tension, grief, whatever it might be) with a better grip on your emotional response? Can you recognize the emotion in the situation, acknowledge it, but not be controlled by it?
The harder our circumstances, the harder choosing to respond to them in a constructive way can be – yet, like most other things in life, practice helps. And every day we have the opportunity to practice a better response. That practice is a way to improve our character. We’re already at the gym: might as well put in the work to come out of this stronger.
Never let a good crisis go to waste
This brings us back to the beginning. Crises bring about painful, tangible consequences. Thousands of us will not survive this pandemic – yet most will. The tragedy and grief that we have and will have for those dying is here and will be here. Let us not add to this tragedy by also losing vast amounts of human quality with the survivors’ characters deterioritating. Instead, let’s honor the departed by becoming a better version of ourselves for now and the times to come.
CXO you are, after all, known as a courageous individual & the culture is a reflection of the leadership (past and present).
Years of expertly-executed reorganizing and cost cutting have recently been exchanged for retooling and future-proofing the company against disruption, uncertainty and change. An increased ability to anticipate, adapt and respond more quickly will drive greater advantage for the organization, keep us healthy and strong for the road ahead. “WE’RE SAYING & DOING A LOT RE: CHANGE/TRANSFORMATION”
For many months, the board and the CEO have been focused on a more generative and healthier balance of efficiency, velocity, flexibility, long-termism, sustainabla-bla-bla results, strengthening core yada-yada values, human capitabla-bla and clarity of purpose + profit bla-bla-bla. (Even if you believe in these “buzz words” – we all recognize that they can be a trigger/distraction.)
The organization is DOING a lot in the name of change with regard to strategy, vision and business process. And your company has already invested millions in new product development/innovation, agile processes/structures, office design, change management protocol, new internal communication campaigns and many town halls. You even built beautiful digital centers of excellence.
“BUT STILL, TRANSFORMATION ISN’T HAPPENING FAST ENOUGH”
Meanwhile, new competitors are growing rapidly and creating a significant threat. Despite all the changes you have made, the market is telling you that you are not executing fast enough and the transformation is not happening deeply enough. Your brands and digital channels are growing X times slower than your competitors. Even your newer executives, hired from companies that were “born agile and digital” are experiencing surprising difficulties and unexpected blockages from within the organization. You strongly believe that the company culture is what’s causing the lag, drag and counterproductive friction. Culture is unintentionally undermining the execution of your growth strategy. The organization is not moving forward in terms of the performance improvements expected by now. Your leadership team wants better results. Accordingly, you committed to your pioneering CEO that you would Transform (with a capital T) your company into a courageous and adaptive, high-performance culture — one that is fully engaged, agile, creative and collaborative…one that is more capable of digital-yadayada, customer-centribla-bla, etc. “Transformation with a capital T, which we define as an intense, organization-wide program to enhance performance (an earnings improvement of 25 percent or more, for example) and to boost organizational health. When such transformations succeed, they radically improve the important business drivers, such as topline growth, capital productivity, cost efficiency, operational effectiveness, customer satisfaction, and sales excellence.” –Bucy, Hall and Yakola (McKinsey & Co.) THE BIG “T” RARELY FOLLOWS A “DO AS I SAY” PATH; EVEN THE “DO AS I DO” PATH HAS LIMITS
Your C-suite peers and report directs are likely somewhat cynical about the idea of culture Transformation being successful at your company (and justifiably so) — not because they think you are insincere, but because they are convinced that the system “is what it is.” The system always wins, and the system itself lacks the objectivity to be fixed by the system.
Our traditions are usually stronger than our intentions to change.
Plus when the other execs talk about being on board with fixing the culture with transformation efforts, whether they are aware of it or not, they are likely talking about transformation with a little “t.” In the spirit of Bruce Lee, rather than being in such a hurry to fix it, we’re better off if we first focus on enriching our understanding of it. Most executive teams lack a shared language and understanding of this complex topic. Most HR and change management functions don’t have the expertise to best support the executive team with an effective orientation to the topic let alone help them make a conscious choice about committing (or not) to a strong plan to develop cultural empathy and lead the way. (The strong HR execs that do have the expertise, are often caught in a very tough spot, because they are viewed as part of the system themselves.)
Most executives are unaware of how unaware they are when it comes to leading Transformation and shaping culture. We are often unaware of our own contribution to the very thing we complain about. When it comes to the big “T,” we (leaders) are often the limiting factor. Here is what I mean: Many senior executives and their peers don’t really know how culture works from a socio-technical systems (see image below) standpoint. Most don’t know the difference between organizational culture and climate. Most don’t have a clear understanding of the levers for change, the sequence of steps, the essential versus important, etc. Most don’t have experience experimenting (and learning) with emerging best practices in adult development. BEING > DOING; BUT MOST EXECUTIVE TEAMS AREN’T READY FOR THAT
You and your peers have earned the benefit of the doubt — that you are sincere about change (+ you have more than enough courageous) — but only you know if you’re serious about the deep (identity) work of Transformation necessary to change your individual and collective BE-ING level.
“Most are not serious about change because it requires senior managers to change their behavior. You know how corporate bosses can be. This is not always a very welcome method. I’ve been kicked out of plenty of boardrooms.” Eric Ries (author of The Lean Startup)
Unlike Mr. Ries, I am actually not advocating that you should (or shouldn’t) be serious about it. (No need to kick me out of your boardroom.) I believe it makes total sense if you’re not ready yet. I believe it depends on your business context and it depends on what you/your system truly value most. If you (and your system) value control, obedience and compliance to old norms – then it is a mistake to promise new standards of courage, collaboration and creativity. It is a mistake to make promises about the big “T” when you are only ready for the little “t.” How do you know when you are ready?Typically, readiness doesn’t come until you have suffered enough trying to fix it the old way – just focused on the doing & trying harder. Once you are dissatisfied enough with your current-level results, then you are ready to consider expanding the goal beyond executing/DO-ING the little “t” and instead work on the big “T” = the BE-ING. Our biases/norms today cause us to react to change with a disproportionate reliance on the “DOING” (technical domains/hard skills, e.g., technology, behaviors) versus securing the path to value by also focusing on the “BE-ING” (human domains/soft skills, e.g., mindsets and identity). Devaluing serious attention on the human domain (in favor of the technical) has historically been the default protocol for most corporations. To succeed at the big “T”, we need both at full strength; we need to upgrade both.
While you may be pitching the big “T,” the majority of the executive team may only be agreeing to the little “t.” Despite the frustration and burnout, if they are not yet ready to agree to the big “T,” then be patient. They will be ready soon enough. For now, “no” is the second-best answer to “yes.” At least then, you can all make that choice consciously/more deliberately. Again, they will be ready soon enough to choose readiness. Change is a chronic condition. It is persistent and long lasting. There will be plenty more suffering. Eventually, once the suffering becomes too great…those of you that stuck around will collectively be more ready to courageously experiment with the deeper, more effective work of the big “T” together.
It’s not your fault if you’re not collectively ready for the big “T” right now – but nonetheless it is your responsibility.
Here is a sampling of consistent leadership team quotes from executives (in various states of individual readiness) across many different industries:
BLAME, DRAMA AND LACK OF TRUST ARE THE ENEMIES OF RAPID ADAPTATION & COURAGE
Many executive teams approach culture change with the wrong mindset and a limited set of tools. Few ever get to the real work of Transformation.
We often hear root-cause explanations (for why it’s so hard) that sound more like “blame-centric” perspectives and worldviews, suggesting that specific people (e.g., millennials, old-timers) “who just don’t get it” make the culture work difficult. Many of us get too caught up in the drama of focusing on where/who to blame for the lack of progress. The analysts/media will blame the brand (for being exactly what they said it was — sleepy, stuck in the past). The board will blame the C-suite. The C-suite/leadership team blames the board, and now they blame you, the CXO (but not to your face). The leadership team blames each other. The leadership team blames HR. The leadership team and HR blame middle management and their inability to “get with the program.” Middle management blames leadership and their unwillingness to listen. The frontline employees blame their direct manager and the corporate ivory tower. And the suffering continues. This response is a reflection of the current culture. The culture is a reflection of the current (and past) leadership. This tendency for blame and persecution will only stifle improvement + learning & development efforts and make it even harder. I like to say, if it’s hard for you… then chances are you’re doing it wrong. There is a much more effective response available when the team is ready for it. INDIVIDUAL COURAGE DOESN’T SCALE. COURAGE IS A TEAM SPORT.
It’s good that you are courageous. Unfortunately, courage doesn’t scale from an individual act. Courage is a group behavior. Individual heroics are distracting and represent a VERY misguided storyline when it comes to building a courageous culture. The reality is that most courageous individuals often appear less courageous when they are working in a low trust environment. Lencioni’s work showed us that when the environment is lacking trust then the consequence is a paralyzing sense of bystander-ing that occurs from a fear of conflict, fear of speaking up and fear of making mistakes, lack of commitment, etc.
Usually, at least one leadership team member (avoiding ownership of the trust issue altogether) will say something out of desperation to bring the focus back to courage like:
“I just want courageous people who will try new things and charge up the hill on their own; I want generals, not soldiers waiting for me to tell them what to do. They should know what to do by now. They’re either soft, they’re lazy, they don’t care or they don’t get it. People need to know we are serious about this transformation. Maybe we should fire some of the cowardly people to make the rest move faster.”
The overwhelming majority of your employees aren’t lazy and they aren’t cowardly. They aren’t stuck; employees do get it. Your employees are delivering on exactly what you/your system still values most. They are actually delivering on the current, unwritten norms of the culture = conformity.
Inside an organization, courage is not something you DO alone.
As the existential, humanistic psychologist/philosopher Rollo Reese May famously said (alongside Viktor Frankl and other major proponents of existential psychotherapy),
“the opposite of courage…is not cowardice; it is conformity”— it is the need to fit in.
Courage, like conformity, has to be the group’s agreed-upon way of BEING – a group identity – for it to be scalable and sustainable.
We have to learn to make courage an act of conformity – not an act of valor.
The expert way to do that, is to learn-by-doing – with the explicit intent of becoming. (check out this multi-dimensional example of “courage as a team sport” illustrated by the SPURS)
So if courage is a team sport, how do we make courage a cultural act of conformity?
Psychological safety is the answer, according to Amy Edmondson research from Harvard. Her work illustrates how great performers who find themselves in fear-based, aggressive-defensive and passive-defensive cultures will likely behave like they are afraid to make mistakes and therefore don’t take risks and don’t pursue learning new things as energetically (or as wide-spread) as courageous cultures. The same employees, once they transfer out of the fear-based environment into a constructive culture, will behave courageously in the face of new challenges and changing circumstances. The same goes for adaptability and agility. Most organizations learn in the long run that it is not simply about DOING courageous/agile stuff; it is about BEING courageous/agile. Transformation with a big “T” is a team sport. Transformation happens more quickly and more deeply in community. Culture = the visible and invisible norms (e.g., systems, symbols, behaviors) of our community. Culture is about learning what it takes to fit in—beyond the poster on the wall and the verbal and nonverbal messages. BE-ING CURIOUS, BEING CLEAR AND BE-ING CONSISTENT
Culture is about decoding the way we get stuff done, successfully around here – historically, currently and ideally. Leaders have to be crystal clear, aligned and exquisitely consistent about their approach/curiosity to explore those gaps.
Leaders need a reliable, MRI level of detailed visibility into the invisible components of culture (and a simple model) to understand and discuss where you are currently as a culture — and where you want to be in the near future. You need to see clearly where you have anomalies of ideal culture success and current culture gaps. To have an effective culture strategy, you can’t afford to use anecdotes or guess about the gap to be closed. It is easy to check. “Check” means the expert use of qualitative and quantitative tools. “Check” also means ask. Just ask. And your openness to receive the answers matters. Culture isn’t declarative; it’s interrogative. Here’s a line of questioning that I use to check on the awareness, urgency and alignment of executive teams involved in both the big “T” and little “t” imperatives: I’m curious…you are a year or so into this transformation…how’s it going? What are you most excited about? What are you most concerned about? How are you feeling about the transformation?
What is the business reason/goal for this transformation? What are the key metrics used to measure degrees of success in the execution of this transformation?
What are the business consequences of not transforming successfully? On a scale of 1 – 10, how important/urgent is this? What if you don’t intervene and people just do (think, relate, act) as they have been doing to date?
IDEAL STATE: Do the executives who make up the leadership team have clarity about the ideal culture (vision) you are transforming to? Imagine if you woke up a year from now and find that the vision has come true and your goals have been accomplished. What does that look like? When culture change has taken hold, it makes it a lot easier and more likely to achieve your industry-leading/pioneering performance-level goals. How can you tell? What does that look like/feel like? What is different? What are some key habits and areas of mastery that you are excited about? What are people inside and outside your company saying about it?
CURRENT STATE: Compared to this ideal, what is missing in the current situation? Do these executives have clarity about the current culture and where you are at now? Do you have individual and collective diagnostic tools? From your perspective, how do people need to perform differently in the next X years in order to transform?
CULTURE PLAN: Do the executives agree on the gap to close? Do they agree on the plan, priority and sequence to close it? What have you done already? What is keeping you from closing the gap and shifting to the ideal culture? What are the identified blockers/obstacles?
PERSONAL IMPACT: Why did you raise your hand for this? What matters the most to you? Why? What happens to you (personally) if you don’t accomplish the vision? What happens to the council?
Does the leadership team have clarity, shared language and understanding about how culture evolves and the impact of history on the current state? Have they identified causal factors (e.g., systems, structures) that are part of the work climate? Do they understand how they reinforce and shape the current culture and what may be levers for change in improvement plans?
How well does the leadership team embody the ideal cultural attributes? How are they being supported? Are they first going to create a shared learning environment for both the technical and human dimensions of change?
How many people in the organization, beyond the leadership team, are being impacted by the transformation?
NEW CONVERSATIONS AND PERSPECTIVES ABOUT CULTURE
Senior leaders report culture as being critical to business success. A new approach is needed to support leaders responsible for shaping culture.
Understand and appreciate the complexity and unique culture perspectives of peers and experts.
Understand how culture is created and the impact of history on the current state as well as important aspects of the work climate that shape and reinforce the current culture.
Build a common language for understanding the layers of culture using qualitative and quantitative methods.
Discover how culture evolves. Identify paths that increase the likelihood of shared learning and positive results with any major change effort.
Identify causal factors (systems, structures, etc.) that are part of the work climate. Understand how they reinforce the current culture and how they may be levers for change in improvement plans.
It is always amazing to see what is possible when we engage each other in a newly designed dialogue/mutual learning experience. Some very insightful commentary and shifts of perspective take place. Where transformation is the goal, the unit of work is dialogue. ADDITIONAL EMPATHY AND MOMENTUM
I am always reminded that we (leaders) have a lot to learn about the complexity of culture change efforts and the impact our own leadership has on keeping the status quo (traditions) in place — despite our intentions to lead change. Perhaps in conversations like these, more leaders can begin to see how MAYBE it makes sense that our people are stuck and confused about what to do with regard to culture change because we (the leaders) are stuck and confused too. Usually, that sparks an environment/energy that is more ready than ever to learn how to shift culture more quickly and sustainably. THREE PART APPROACH TO BUILD A MORE COURAGEOUS CULTURE
The approach and sequence matter. The means is the end.
The idea of the work to be done is simple: test and learn what works (in the context of business) to help deliver better results + build stronger team trust + create stronger sense of individual fulfillment and satisfaction. The details of the execution are complex.
EVERY TRANSFORMATION JOURNEY IS DIFFERENT
It is about engaging with others differently. It is about how we choose to take care of each other while pursuing excellence, together. Here are examples of journeys, shifts and models (used by Axialent) that are most effective at helping high-performance teams build an even more courageous culture inside of multinational organizations. “BE agile versus DO agile”(Supporting one of the largest AGILE transformation projects in the world.)
COURAGEOUS CULTURE IS A LIFESTYLE CHOICE
We can’t BECOME courageous just by deciding to do so any more than we can just BECOME healthy just by deciding to do so. Deciding isn’t the same as being. If everyone could just BE the better, more effective version of ourselves we would. We would all eat healthy, exercise, meditate and stop doing the old counterproductive habits that trip us up. We aren’t lazy, apathetic, lacking discipline or willpower. We all have competing priorities – some we aren’t even consciously aware of. We are all at our own current level – working on our own next level. We are all somewhat socially-defined and self-authoring. We are all social beings. We all need to fit in. Courage is a group behavior & a way of working/BE-ING together. A courageous culture unleashes and amplifies our courage – it expands our capability to learn and adapt.
To win today, high-velocity organizations need to fuel unprecedented learning, awareness, people development, cognitive flexibility, complex problem-solving and impeccable coordination of action (at scale). To sustain it at scale, we need to build deliberately developmental cultures (mutual learning environment vs unilateral control) fostering safe, courageous, high-trust, high engagement, productive conflict/healthy debate, mutual accountability and a focus on results. How will you help your organization become the kind of culture that is even more courageous, adaptive and agile? We (collectively) have to work on BECOMING that kind of culture over time – becoming an environment where diverse human beings can bring 110% of their grit, energy, intelligence, creativity and courage to bear on the increased challenges that face us all. Change is a persistent, unstoppable, chronic condition (a 21st-century lifestyle) that we’ll always have to live with & embrace together as a group.
The condition is complex, but the treatment is simple. Do more of what makes you stronger: EQ/Mindsets+AQ/Muscle Building. Prioritize and strengthen the muscle groups that upgrade the culture vs fall victim to our unconscious obedience to current norms.
We’re all always working on culture — we’re either helping it become more adaptive and courageous or we’re unintentionally keeping it stuck. CXO, You got this!?