We live on a corner and almost every summer day as part of my morning exercise, I walk down the side street of our home. The sun is still rising. The dew hasn’t yet vanished from the grass. Everything looks fresh and green. The bushes that we so carefully planted around the perimeter of our home several years ago have grown substantially since the lawn service gave them their spring trim. As each day goes by, I realize that some parts of the bushes are REALLY growing out, and maybe it’s time for a mid-summer trim earlier than we anticipated.
So one morning after my exercise I casually grabbed a big paper yard refuse bag from the garage, along with my favorite cutting tools, and meandered over to the two or three bushes that from a distance seemed to need special attention. Once I got close to them, I saw that in reality the problem wasn’t so much with the original bushes we planted, as it was with other wild bushes growing up in the middle of them. I began clipping away at the branches until I could finally see the base of these stalks, and move in with my more precise and sharp cutting tool to cut them off just above the ground. That’s as close as I could get given that the roots seem to be intertwined. Once I got all the wild, weed-like bushes removed, I realized that the original bush was only half as full. The weed took up so much space that it prevented the original bush from growing. As my one bag filled up quicker than anticipated, I began to recognize the enormity of the issue. There weren’t just two or three bushes that needed attention. There were about EIGHT!
That’s when I alternated between wondering whether the lawn service just cut the bushes back versus cutting OUT the greenery that wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place. If I or my husband had paid more attention to the job that needed to be done, or how the bushes were developing, maybe we could have caught this earlier. Instead, now we needed to surgically remove the vegetation that didn’t belong there in order to nurture the greenery that was consistent with our original intent. This created more work for us, and loss for the plants themselves.
A Picture of Your Culture
Given my passion for leadership, I began to think about the lesson to be learned for organizations. Leaders who talk about the culture and behaviors that they want, but fail to follow through and ensure that everyone in their organizations know what to do and how to do it, are likely to get inconsistent results. They may be too distant from the middle and lower layers of their team, and fail to describe and model the behaviors of success. They may never stop to verify results, talk with the team or gain feedback and input from others. This neglect leads to manifestation of undesirable behaviors in their organizations.
A colleague recently told me about a manufacturing company with a relatively long product development cycle. The entry level engineers would recognize issues in the products they were asked to develop, but the culture didn’t encourage or reward open communication and identification of potential problems. So they simply kept quiet and passed them along until years later, they were much bigger issues that resulted in delays to product launch, and significant cost overruns that tarnished their brand image. Their “weeds” had a very costly consequence.
The same results occur in our professional and personal lives, where seemingly small and unchecked negative behaviors blossom until they derail careers or ruin relationships. The culture of a company or personality of an individual must be carefully cultivated based on desired outcomes that support the purpose of the organization.
Culture is observable in the beliefs, behaviors, knowledge, experiences and values of an organization and the individuals in it. So how can leaders redirect focus on building a culture that aligns with the desired results of the company?
Frame the desired environment. Do you want an organization that encourages associates to come up with creative ideas; promotes wellness; or values teaming with members of diverse functional groups? What behaviors contribute to the overall performance of the company? The leadership team should determine this with input from a cross-section of the organization.
Identify the behaviors and policies to be changed. What embedded processes, norms and actions hinder the desired state? Most importantly, what leaders (and their behaviors) impede the development? In discussing this, everything should be “put on the table” for review and consideration.
Determine the daily habits to get there. Once you identify what’s wrong, replace it with what’s right. None of us get rid of bad habits without first focusing on good replacement habits.
Reward and reinforce. Identify reward mechanisms in the process, along with a means to catch deviations early on. Unwanted behaviors are generally deeply rooted, so it’s necessary to proactively dig in and stop them from spreading. You’ll need close and continual monitoring and pruning to develop your desired culture.
These high level steps obviously require a significant amount of engagement and time on the part of the leadership team, and frequently are best addressed by collaborating with culture change experts. However, the return on investment is multiplied in providing exponentially superior business outcomes. Ultimately, the desire for change to a more beneficial culture must be greater than the discomfort of going through the change process, and weeding out the negative behaviors, beliefs, experiences and values.
So what does your culture look like?
Fortune Magazine recently published its annual list of the largest U.S. corporations. Among the top 500, the names are all familiar. Only about 5% of the overall companies are newcomers or returnees. But understanding the challenges some of these companies have faced over the past years tell a clearer story of the shifting headwinds. One popular acronym today is VUCA which stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. According to writers Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoine in the January-February 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review (What VUCA Really Means For You), your level of VUCA reflects how much you know about your situation, and how well you can predict the results of your actions.
Other articles and books are being published that similarly reflect the increasing pace and scale of change in our environment, along with the need for leaders to become comfortable with uncomfortability. C-suite leaders who finally win the brass ring can no longer rest on their laurels, nor can they clearly forecast the next major trend. Instead, as the saying goes, they are now an easier target for competitors and detractors to aim at. More frequently these days, their appointment comes on the heels of their predecessor’s perceived shortcomings, and/or the mandate to reinvent their companies and themselves.
Even the best leaders are scrambling to keep pace, much less outrun their competition. In early 2014, on Doug McMillon’s first official day in his new position as Walmart’s CEO, he found it difficult to actually sit in the chair in what used to be Sam Walton’s office. Whether he was momentarily overwhelmed by the magnitude of running the Fortune 1 company, or by the admired history of its founder, it took a moment for him to physically make the shift. For a company under competitive pressure from the likes of Amazon and dollar store chains, his leadership is critical to pushing through the challenges ahead.
As McMillon and other leaders press forward to maximize the success of their companies, several tips come to mind that are critical for all to follow to effectively manage their VUCA.
Dance on the balls of your feet. In my career I’ve observed many executives who I’ve placed in the category of needing to “learn how to dance.” In other words, they needed to learn how to flow with suddenly changing business situations, and to lead by coming up with new solutions quickly. Dancing on the balls of your feet takes this to the next level. In the dance world, as in the business world, doing so aids your quickness, balance, movement and smoothness; all necessary traits for managing VUCA. Your leadership style, organizational culture, and decisions must be agile to smoothly and swiftly pivot the company’s strategies and direction when competitive threats loom, and to take advantage of new opportunities when they arise.
Wear your trifocals. Unfortunately, I’ve reached the age in life where trifocals are a necessity. At the bottom, I have the strongest prescription so that I can read and see things close up. I use the middle area to focus on objects and words at mid-range, like my computer screen. And at the top, I can see far into the distance. Though I don’t wear them 100% of the time, I admit that my vision isn’t as precise as when I have them on. Fighting the need to wear them only places me in denial. So what is your strategy for seeing things in your business up close, mid-term, and far into the future? Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of Pepsico saw that that while her company makes a lot of money on what many consider to be junk food, consumers really want more healthy fare. So she’s leading the long term strategy to develop new products that taste good, but without the unhealthy ingredients, while continuing to optimize the current big money makers.
Use your shoe as a cell phone holder. You rightfully should think that this sounds crazy. But 25 years ago, most people had not heard of a smartphone, apple watch, Facebook or many other staples of our modern age. This is innovation, which means combining multiple objects that have no obvious relationships with one another, to create something new and different. Innovation is a matter of changing your mental perspective, shifting your view of how things should operate, and meeting needs that people didn’t realize they had.
Play a MMORPG. For the uninitiated like myself, this is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, where a very large number of players interact with one another within a web-browser based game world. With tens of millions of players and expected revenues of $11 billion in 2015, this category is continuing to explode. The theme is to create and develop a character in an online fantasy world where the culture, systems and environment continue to evolve even when you’re not playing it. While this may seem totally unrelated to organizational strategies, the founders at Improbable, a London start-up, have taken this to a new level. According to the article in Forbes, on Merchants of Parallel Worlds the company has created new technology to “simulate extremely complex systems.” While Bossa Studios, another gaming company, is using Improbable’s technology to create a new MMORPG, organizations like Samsung and Oxford University are using it to run simulations and future scenarios. They’re trying to understand the impact of volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous events on the future, without having to actually wait for it to happen. Game theory can help you model and manage your future.
Obviously, organizations and leaders who learn how to manage effectively in a world of increasing unpredictability are the ones with the best shot at reaching their goals. They will be more prescient than lucky, anticipating change even when they’re unable to understand it. They will thrive where others merely survive, fueling themselves on the pace of change rather than drowning in it. They will shift their perspective on VUCA, viewing it as an opportunity rather than an obstruction.
Imagine that you want to move a 4,000 pound hulking mass of metal, plastic, rubber and fiber from your home to your office. In other words, you want to drive your car to work. The primary device of movement you will need is a set of wheels. Since its invention more than 6,000 years ago this basic tool has facilitated the transportation of objects across the world. The original design of the wheel was a solid frame, until the discovery that spokes made it lighter and faster, thus easier to use. While its design and aesthetics have evolved, the simplicity of its use has remained the same. It provides mobility and progress.
As a leader, imagine yourself as the hub in a wheel. Your ability to move forward with your initiatives is dependent upon the strength and structural reliability of the spokes to which you’re connected. These spokes must be strong and firmly attached to both the hub and the outer rim. The rim in essence forms a circle around your leadership team; it defines your inner circle. Others see you as a unit, whose parts function effectively only to the degree that they are united.
Because you’re only as strong as your weakest link, it’s important to build and strengthen your inner circle. Think about these five key qualities that you need in your “spokes” to support a strong wheel.
Alignment around vision, mission, shared goals and objectives. These are the core philosophies of your “why”, which according to Simon Sinek is the purpose, cause or belief that inspires you and your organization to do what you do. Involve your inner circle in discussions around the direction of your organization. They must fully understand each piece of the puzzle, to see the big picture. Ensure the channels of communication are open for debate, respectful disagreement and continual dialogue to make certain everyone is aligned. The point is, if there is disagreement around the vision and mission, it’s best to hash it out in the open, rather than let it fester in the background. Such dissent will act like a cancer and undermine your plans.
Teamwork and collaboration with everyone bringing complimentary skills to the table. At this writing, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors are set to go the 2015 NBA playoffs. But it’s not just LeBron James of the Cavaliers who will play. The ENTIRE Cleveland team must play. Each man must perform according to his position and work with his teammates to effectively win. As talented and critical as LeBron is to his team’s success, he still can’t win the games and the championship by himself. So why do some leaders think that they can play their role, and everyone else’s too? As the hub, you act as the coach or captain of the team. It all comes together around you, but every person, must excel at and perform their assigned function.
Integrity and standards of trust that hold everyone accountable. If the structural integrity of one of the spokes is below the minimum design quality, it will break, damaging the entire system of the wheel. These same structural boundaries apply to behaviors in your inner circle. As the leader, you must model acceptable behaviors and clearly identify those which are improper. This includes clarifying ethical and moral values, and well as daily behavioral norms. And your team must know that any one of them who violate these standards will be dealt with in an appropriate way. Lack of trust in any of these areas weakens the fabric of the team.
Culture is about fit. When people are considering a new position, the first thing they want to understand is the culture of the organization so that they can determine whether they fit in. How do the leaders work together? How are decisions made? How do they differentiate between simply good and really great employees? What do people like and dislike about working there? Purposefully discuss, define and develop the culture of your inner circle. As you’re considering candidates to join your team, include the members of your inner circle in the interview process to ensure their ability to work well together.
Develop and nurture the growth of your inner circle. Just like a wheel needs to be maintained, and the tire surrounding it must be inflated properly, your inner circle needs maintenance and care. You must nurture their growth and development, not only for succession planning, but for their own personal and professional development. Watch for signs of weakness and take swift action to shore it up. Leverage their strengths and talk about opportunities for development. You may need to invest in a coach, find a mentor, or provide a key experience or developmental assignment for them.
All of these spokes are also surrounded by the assumption that the team has the technical capabilities to perform their roles. That’s the basic price of consideration for entry into your inner circle. But skill and experience without the ability to function as a unit will stymie progress, and negatively impact your business results. Similarly, if the wheel isn’t structurally sound, it will collapse under the weight of the load it’s carrying. So take the time to examine the spokes in your wheel. What is your inner circle made of?