We live in a world full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. As leaders, we must manage our teams and organizations, but we must first learn to manage ourselves and our responses.
In the first of a “how-to guide” episode, host Fran Racioppi sits down with organizational psychologist Dr. Alan Echtenkamp to understand the elements that build a strong and effective leader in times of challenge and transition. They discuss the four keys to effective communication and how leaders should approach planning with an agile and versatile attitude. They also delve into how leadership must set the conditions for a return to normalcy and how empowering employees will provide them a voice in their future while building trust across the organization.
Listen to the podcast here:
About Alan Echtenkamp
Alan Echtenkamp is an organizational psychologist and founder of Slingshot Leadership. He has 25 years of experience helping leaders create high-performing teams that drive growth and profitability. Prior to launching Slingshot, Alan was the head of global talent management for Time Warner Inc, where he was responsible for leading succession and development strategies for senior business and creative executives across all Time Warner businesses. Alan coaches leaders in business development, organization diagnosis, solution design and execution, and client service team management. Alan currently teaches at Columbia University in New York and has published articles and book chapters in both scholarly and mainstream press.Alan serves on the board of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol; a not-for-profit organization that provides comprehensive, holistic, and long-term support services to youth. He earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University and his B.A. from Purdue University.
As humans, we’re creatures of habit. We like order, organization, and clarity. Most people strive in a set routine and excel when they’re in some level of control, but we live in an ever-changing complex world where every action has a reaction, and every reaction affects another action. In this episode, we kick off a new twist to the show, our how-to series on becoming a stronger leader. To learn how to thrive in today’s dynamic world, I asked Dr. Alan Echtenkamp to join me in a conversation about operating in a world filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Alan is an Organizational Psychologist and Founder of Slingshot Leadership. He was previously the Head of Global Talent Management for Time Warner.
Alan shared that crisis leadership requires vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. He defined authentic leadership and showed me the importance of awareness. He provided the framework for effective communication by thinking through the lens of the sender, receiver, and the message itself. Alan explained that in the post-COVID world, leaders of organizations would need to provide their teams with a common sense of purpose and a choice in their future.
Alan, thanks for joining me on the show.
Thanks for having me, Fran.
This is episode 10. It’s our first benchmark. We’re on the back end. We think there might be another surge but it’s a 100-year global pandemic. We had a tense and volatile election cycle. We’ve seen an economic bust followed by a historic boom in the financial markets. Social and societal conversations about race, gender and equality have forced us all to think and none of us has been unscathed in this journey. I want the focus to be on uncertain environments, crisis leadership in this return to normalcy. If you’re willing to have that conversation, you’re ready to go.
Let’s start with this concept of VUCA. What is VUCA? It’s Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. We talked about it in episode 1. We spoke about it with Mike Sarrallie and George Randle, the authors of The Talent War. It’s a term that was developed by the US Army War College that described the post-Cold War era. It’s a critical environment by which Special Operations assesses elite talent. We’ve transitioned that conversation into how do we assess elite talent in the business world using the same environment but it’s the absence of structure, limited information, resources and direction except for maybe a clear goal or a clear end state. I think about the Jedburghs behind enemy lines in World War II.
Win the war at all costs. That was it. It’s how Special Operations operates in the world nowadays. It’s also there in the business world. The corporate environment is what I call this four-dimensional system, an ecosystem where businesses live, where every decision has a reciprocal reaction and nothing can be done in a vacuum. People in these times of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity either get creative, adapt and thrive or they have to walk away because they don’t understand it. They don’t get it. They can’t rationalize what’s going on. It’s a large part of your work and it’s a concept that you’ve spoken about with your development of executives. Can you talk about the roots of it and how is this applied? What have you seen in the business world?
It’s a funny topic because, for years, we’ve been talking about this in the context of technology, disruption, shifting consumer behaviors, changing regulatory environments, changing employee values and expectations. Organizations have been dealing with what we thought was VUCA for some time. COVID hit and everyone, “This is VUCA. What do we do?”
“We’re here. It’s real.”
The challenge for leaders is always recognizing that they are people in this experience too. Part of the challenge of leadership is managing your own experience through this volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, and also recognizing your responsibility for how you bring others through this. There are as many definitions of leadership as there are snowflakes in the world. It’s useful to articulate what mine is and it’s not my own. So much of my point of view is taken from the wisdom of others. When I think about leadership, I think about it as an influence relationship between leaders and followers that intend real change that reflects their mutual benefits. That comes from a leadership theorist named Rost.
I think that’s an important definition because it emphasizes a few things. It’s a relationship based on influence. Leadership is not an equal dynamic. You are influencing someone else with your leadership. It’s between people so that bears responsibility. There’s a moral and ethical responsibility to having an influence on other people’s lives. Part of that responsibility is that it reflects your mutual benefits. Part of what happens to people when they go through these stressful moments is that sometimes it causes you to do the opposite of what’s needed in that leadership situation.
In times of stress, we get more narrow in what we’re able to focus on and what we’re able to take in. It’s probably an evolutionary reaction to whatever, “There’s a tiger in the grass. What should I do?” Part of the challenge for leaders in any environment, but particularly in a VUCA environment, is being able to manage their emotional experience in a way that doesn’t deny that it’s stressful but uses that in a way that helps propel them forward. More importantly, helps move other people through what is by definition an emotional experience.
Let’s talk a little bit more about the need to look inward in times of crisis. You’ve stated in some words that you put together. Social science tells us that in times of crisis and fear, we tend to become conservative, more insular and less tolerant. There’s a risk during times of fear and uncertainty that we turn inward and behaving in ways that contradict what is needed at the moment. How do you identify that and stop it?
You and I have talked about Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety. As you think about your own experience, part of it is re-centering yourself on your overarching moral purpose. What’s your great vision for leadership? Who’s the kind of leader that you want to be? I’ve had people say to me, “I would be a great manager if only people knew what they needed to do and would do their jobs.”
Without having to be told.
That’s what I say, “We all would be great managers if that was the case,” but that’s never true. The challenge for leaders is managing your own emotional experience and being able to push through it anyway. We can talk a little bit about what it takes to build that resilience. Many leaders in organizations have been through some crucible. Using military experience as an example, there are kids with military experience who have been through leadership scenarios that people like me who have not served will never see. The level of stress is so high so you develop these strategies for getting yourself through that. The flip side of that is, how do you create the conditions where people understand the risks and the sense of urgency, but also feel they are supported and skilled to move themselves and their colleagues through that?
What about this concept of VUCA Prime, Vision, Understanding, Clarity and Agility?
That has been put forth as the antidote. The truth is there are no silver bullets but if you think about what’s needed in times of volatility, one thing that can be helpful from leaders is to provide a clear vision. Often, when we talk about leadership, we arrive first at this idea that visionary individuals can help lead other people through uncertainty and volatility. That’s generally true. You don’t want to over-rely on charismatic leadership because then you miss other things. Having a clear vision and a sense of purpose allows other people to see what a better future looks like and get on board with that.
There’s got to be a grounding function there or a foundational function because if you don’t know where you’re going, how do you create stability?
For the leader, that’s why self-awareness is so key. There’s a professor at Case Western named Richard Boyatzis and he talks about articulating your noble purpose. That seems esoteric and philosophical. In fact, it’s the only real thing that you can use as the anchor to know if you are making choices that are consistent with your own and other’s well-being. Anchoring in that gives you a North Star. If you can communicate that in an authentic and credible way then people know who you are and make a choice whether or not that’s something that they can get on board with. In your first podcast, The Talent War Group talked about how people follow you for who you are and what you represent. If you don’t know what that is or if you’re kidding yourself and you say, “I stand for this,” when everybody thinks you stand for that then it’s very hard to get people mobilized particularly in a crisis.
We call that almost being real and they did talk about it. Mike and George talked about it in episode 1. Jerry Remy talked about it in episode 3, where he said that every day when he goes on air as a broadcaster for the Boston Red Sox, he has to be real because if you’re not real, people will see right through you. They’ll see you’re a phony and if you’re faking it, that’s going to come out.
There’s a whole discipline in leadership theory called Authentic Leadership. It’s gotten some grief because people misunderstand what real and authenticity means. There’s this idea that authenticity is fully revealing every thought and impulse that comes to mind, to just say it and not process it. Authentic leadership is authentic in its link to leadership rather than what you feel in a given moment. A good authentic leader is one who recognizes the role and responsibility that comes along with being a leader and becomes the best version of themselves in that. It’s not about expressing every doubt you have to your followers because that’s going to disrupt your ability to bring them along. It’s about being real and realistic about both some of the challenges but also communicating the energy and emotion that you need other people to have as they move through it.
People will term that, “I tell it like it is.” I heard leaders that I work with in organizations say, “With my employees, I tell it like it is,” but do you understand how that’s received? In their minds, they’re being transparent and open. They’re providing this level of feedback but on the receiving end, it comes across as abrasive, crass or there’s no filter and respect for the work that they’re doing. It’s that theory of authenticity of evaluating those around you and communicating with them in a sense that is telling them the reality of the situation but doing it tactfully. It is what’s going to drive the organization forward than sitting here and saying, “I’m going to be honest with you. You suck today.”
There’s this self-awareness piece and that’s critical. There was a great book a couple of years ago called Insights where the book says essentially that 90% of people consider themselves self-aware and the real number is around 15%. It’s how everybody thinks they’re an above-average driver, which statistically is impossible. Half of you have to be below average.
Now cars tell you when you’re a bad driver. It does with the autocorrect. It’s like, “You’re drifting.” You should be able to get those analytics and say, “We had to self-correct your driving 45 times in this trip.”
There’s probably a future in AI for leaders. You get a wristband. It knows what your guardrails are and it shocks you one way that pushes you back. That self-awareness piece is essential but insufficient for building credible leadership relationships. The other piece is that other awareness and that’s exactly what you’re talking about. Part of our active action in the world is based on the assumption that our intent is the impact that it’s going to have. In any relationship and any communication, there’s the sender, receiver and message.
Just because we don’t intend to diminish your work doesn’t mean that that’s not how you’re going to experience it. Leaders have to bring a certain amount of humility to that relationship to say, “My intent here is X but I need to keep gathering data to make sure that it’s coming across as X.” The paradox of senior leadership is that the more power you have in an organization, the less likely people are to give you honest feedback. It’s a paradox that the more you need, the less you’re going to get. Leaders have to be active participants in that relationship and invite feedback in a way that allows people safety. Going back to Amy Edmondson’s psychological safety-ish topic. It gives people the permission to provide what is sometimes difficult feedback.
Let’s talk a bit more about that because nobody wants to tell the boss, “You’re all messed up.” That communication piece is the critical element to responding to these types of environments, this volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. You have to be able to communicate those. We talk so much about transformative leaders, but we talk about it in terms of businesses and building organizations. There’s this development of a vision and they have to figure out how to execute this vision.
We think about leaders, at least I do sometimes where they have the whole plan mapped out in their head. Maybe they have it all documented, there’s this nice PowerPoint presentation, and they’re going to stand up in front of their organization. Even if it’s a small business, they’re going to stand up in front of themselves, their business partner, the few employees that they have, and they’re going to brief this thing in detail. They’re going to look around the room and point and say, “You’re going to do this and that,” and direct people to action. Everyone’s going to receive that information. They’re going to know exactly what they have to do and magically, sometime down the road, days, weeks, months or years, all of a sudden, these great results happen. There’s a big barbecue and everyone’s like, “We’ve done it.” This is not the case. This is not the reality, especially when you introduce uncertainty where there’s not going to be a clear answer.
It’s this four-dimensional space that I talked about. Something’s going to go wrong. It doesn’t matter what that plan is. In the military, we will we would always say, “No plan survives the first contact.” In episode 2, Jersey Mike’s CEO, Peter Cancro talked about the 50 years of scaling Jersey Mike’s from one single sandwich shop on the Jersey Shore to 2,000 stores across the globe and $2 billion in revenue. He said, “No plan we’ve ever put together has survived the first contact. We’ve had to change and iterate on everything we’ve done.” When the situation is uncertain, the human instinct in basic management training and how people train your mid to junior level managers can delay action.
We almost ingrained people to downplay the threat until the situation becomes clear. One of the things that we would talk about in decision-making in the military was to understand what you know, what you don’t know and what you need to know. If you think about that, then you can start to create the first action steps. There’s also this fear of taking the wrong steps and saying the wrong thing, which then spreads panic and confusion. That forces you as a leader to sit back and say, “Maybe it’s not happening. Maybe if I sit here for long enough, all of this will go away. It was a bad dream and it will self-correct.”
Instead of acceptance, you have a tendency to want to stand up and say, “It’s going to be okay.” In the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “I’m hoping it’s going to go away,” but hope is not a course of action. There was a course I took in the military where if you brief the word hope in any of your plans, “Hopefully, the enemy will retreat,” you’re done. That’s it. You failed the exercise. You’re going to hopefully do it better the second time because hope is not a course of action and that applies to anything in life. You can’t say, “I hope it’s going to work out.” The reality is that by the time we often understand what the true threat is, it’s too late. The effects have been felt and the public will probably know about it by then. How do you think about this in terms of initial responses of leaders and facing this denial and transitioning that denial into an acceptance and a call to action?
I think of a couple of things. One is that leadership is action, which you highlighted. It’s a verb. Often, we confuse leaders and leadership. Leadership happens as an action in these interpersonal moments and micro-moments. I often talk about how leadership is possible at any level in the organization. It’s about influencing other people in a way that moves them forward in a positive direction. That also links us back to this VUCA Prime category. We talked before about vision and understanding being a way to help move people through volatility and uncertainty. The CA in VUCA Prime, clarity and agility help people move through complexity and ambiguity. Why that’s important is that part of what we recognize as leaders is that we are people in this relationship too. We’re going to be wrong and there are going to be things that we know and don’t know. There are going to be things that we know that we can’t communicate at that moment. Reasonable people know that a ten-year plan is probably going to change over time.
A two-year plan.
A twelve-day plan. Any organization at best only has the correct strategy for right now and that’s the best and many don’t. Any organization only has the right operating model for right now. For leaders in organizations, it’s about getting comfortable with what you know and what you don’t know, and being able to respond quickly. It’s about creating conditions where other people feel safe to do that. We often hear people talking about how they need leaders in their organizations to take smart risks, and yet there are ways to encourage risk-taking in organizational life. There are ways that sometimes we unconsciously discourage it. For leaders in organizations, part of what you need to test yourself on is, “Am I role-modeling the kind of agility that I want to see in other people? Am I permitting them to do the same? Do I punish failure or do we learn from failure? Do I respond quickly and responsibly or do I go back into my shell and hope it passes over?”
The agility piece that you brought up is important because there has to be agility in your thought process and how you communicate. You brought up Professor Amy Edmondson and she had a partner that she wrote with a series of articles about this topic, Michaela Kerrissey. They bring this up. They say that there are unique challenges and ambiguous threats posed to leaders such as cognitive biases and dysfunctional group dynamics. Also, organizational pressures that push leaders towards continuing to discount risks and delay action which leads to this catastrophic end.
They note a series of steps that you can take or strategies that you can use as a leader to make sure you don’t fall into this trap. The four of them are to act with urgency, communicate with transparency, respond productively to missteps, and engage in constant updating. It requires you as the leader to be agile in your thinking. It’s a little bit reactive but it also makes you proactive if you’re thinking like this because you’re thinking about what the next steps are. You’re overcoming that thought of a leader who has to stand there and be stoic and say, “I’ve created the plan. We’re going to stick to the plan and that’s it.” I’m interested in your thoughts on these four steps and maybe we start with this act with urgency.
That highlights a couple of things about these kinds of crisis environments. It requires a different kind of leadership behavior if your ship is sinking than it does if you’re on a steady-state course.
Also, accepting that the ship is sinking.
That’s step one. Also recognizing that people who ordinarily want a voice in a decision may not want a voice at that moment. They look to leaders to act with urgency and that’s part of the responsibility of the job. We’d all love to be leaders if people would do what they were supposed to do.
We can do a whole conversation about the people in organizations who have all the feedback for the leader until they’re the one who’s in charge. It’s almost like when you’re on the highway, you’re in the fast lane, and there’s the person behind you who’s riding your bumper. You get over and all of a sudden, they drive right next to you because now they’re the one who’s going to get pulled over. You see that in organizations all the time.
Sometimes it’s not even a dramatic leap in power. Sometimes a peer gets elevated. What does that mean for the relationship and the dynamics in the team? It’s a tricky thing to navigate. I love this George Carlin video where he talks about how everybody that drives slower than you on the highway is a moron and everybody that drives faster than you is a maniac. We tend to calibrate everything relative to our own experience. This agility thing allows us to act with urgency because we’re not necessarily waiting for more information to happen. I also think some people tend to think more about their experience as being internal than interdependent with others.
The reason acting with urgency is so important is that you are demonstrating a direction for people who in that situation might not know what to do. Going back to COVID, as an example, the threat is real. The kind of leadership and urgency that’s required at that moment to productively get through it is very specific. It also gives people an idea about where they can be helpful. The worst thing in a crisis is a sense of powerlessness. When you have leaders who are not acting with urgency or can’t communicate with transparency, people feel adrift. They feel like a victim of their circumstance. If you can get them aligned and organized and rowing in a direction, even if you have to change that direction at some point, it gives people a sense of power in that situation. That’s incredibly important.
When you talk about communication with transparency, you have to tell people the honest truth about what’s going on but you can instill fear and panic. We will call it, “They light their hair on fire.” They pour gasoline and all of a sudden, they light their hair on fire and run around and everything is wrong. There’s despair everywhere so you have to keep them grounded in the reality of the facts without propping them up with false hope but without breaking them down into these levels of despair that all is lost. How do you do that? What’s that middle ground?
It usually depends on the crisis. Part of the emotion you’re trying to evoke in people depends on the behavior you need from them. Sometimes you’re trying to invoke a sense of calm and composure so everybody moves towards the exits slowly and in an organized fashion and in a line. Sometimes you need a heightened sense of urgency. That’s the leadership communication message. You’re communicating with transparency but with intent. You’re sharing the right information at the right time with the right people in order to elicit the right feeling and right behavior. When we think about communication, we often think about what information do we want people to have. That’s critically important, but just as important is what’s the emotional experience that you want them to have at that moment, and what do you want them to do with that experience? That helps the leader to decide not just what they share but how they share it.
What about when the leader gets it wrong? We call this responding productively to missteps. When they get up there and they say something. We saw a lot in the early days of COVID. I was laughing about how in the first days of COVID, it was, “Wear a mask. Don’t wear masks.”
You can’t find a mask because there are no masks.
You look back on some of those press conferences and people are like, “They told me not to wear masks and now you can’t go anywhere without a mask.” When you get it wrong, how do you fix it?
If you have a trusting relationship with the people around you, that gives you credibility to change your mind. If you think about wearing a mask as an example, part of what we were dealing with at the beginning of the pandemic was uncertain scientific evidence. If you believe that people who are studying this in a rigorous and systematic way are going to discover new information that’s going to cause us to change our point of view, then you can tolerate that shifting landscape because you can follow that. Going back to the point that you brought up earlier, if you create a heightened sense of fear and powerlessness, then it’s going to feel like that shifting landscape is in uncertainty or unreliability.
The fundamental ingredient in that relationship that determines which way it goes is trust. I don’t know if you read the book Sapiens by Yuval Harari. He talks about how trust is one of these foundational elements of human relationships. When I think about trust, just like leadership, there are probably a billion definitions of trust. I’ve smashed them together for my own so I can only remember three things. A trusting relationship is one in which you are competent, reliable, and you care about the other person. If we believe that the leader is generally competent, even if sometimes wrong, has integrity and delivers on what she or he commits to, and cares about us, we’re much more likely to get through that and give them some benefit of the doubt in offering an opportunity to change their minds.
Different information is going to come to light which brings up this fourth piece of this which is engaging in constant updating. As the leader, you’re going to learn new information as you go just like we have through COVID and the evolution of business plans, as market dynamics, sales data, clientele, customer perception and their desires change. Being able to surround yourself with people who can provide you with the right level of information for you to then make decisions is a critical piece of this.
There’s a critical role for leaders empathizing with the follower experience in two ways. One is realizing that the leader is usually out in front. By that, I mean they have already seen the signs and they’re trying to move the organization that way. What the leader has to empathize with the follower is they’re not just there yet. They may get super excited about this change in direction, but you need to recognize that as the leader, you have already moved through your own grief and loss period of mourning what was, and you need to bring other people along in that.
I also think part of what we need leaders in organizational life is to understand what’s changing and what’s not. If you’re communicating and updating your strategy, part of what people need to recognize is not everything is changing. In most aspects of life, particularly if you are a leader with a clear and noble purpose, the values that define you aren’t going to shift that much. Maybe some of the activities are going to do that. The only exception that I think of in my own life is having children. Before I had kids, everybody said, “Everything changes.” I was like, “How can that be possible? Everything changes?” You then had kids and everything changes.
It keeps changing as they get older and it continues to change.
Nothing builds tolerance for ambiguity like parenthood. With the exception of that, a lot of these things in organizational life gave us the opportunity as leaders to say, “We’re going to move in a new strategic direction.” We’ve got a new entrant in our competitive space who is trying to disrupt our business model so we’re going to pivot and do this but at our core, identity and culture, those things are not going to change. I remember years ago when I was at Time Warner, there was this race between HBO and Netflix. Does HBO become Netflix before Netflix becomes HBO? There were these competing business models.
When you’re leading an organization, by definition always new information, competitors and technologies are going to come. As a leader, part of what you have to do for your people is helping them get through that. Part of it is not about being nice. Sometimes situations present themselves where the challenge is very high. You look at the pharmaceutical value chain. It’s not just drug developers but Corning developing the little vials that the drug goes in, and people developing lab equipment. They had to ramp up very quickly.
It was about ramping up the tension and production, which is fine for people as long as you also ramp up the support, community and culture. People are willing to give more than their share as long as they feel supported and loved in organizational life. I don’t think it’s too soft to say that we develop loving relationships with the people that we work with, in part because we spend more time with them than maybe anyone in our lives besides our immediate family. If you go to work and don’t feel loved and supported, it’s going to be a drag.
That support in love now takes us to that final phase of crisis leadership, which is you got to get people back to work to get people to refocus. At some point, this crisis and problem are going to subside. It’s going to end and there’s going to be a return to some sense of normalcy or new normalcy which I don’t necessarily love that term but it’s true. There’s new normalcy and we don’t know what that is, but lessons are going to have been learned about people, teams, organizations and societies in the world. They may have changed. The global pandemic has changed every facet of society. Terrorism attacks, you see that after 9/11 and in London after the London two bombings years ago. Natural disasters do that.
Some changes are for the better and some are for the worse. You have to be aware of what’s working and how do we get better. Now we do everything remote. How many times prior to the pandemic did you fly across the world for a one-day meeting? That’s not happening anymore. There’s no need anymore. We have advanced technology now and are forced to jump-start and leapfrog probably a decade in our thought process of how we do some of these things because of it, but there’s still uncertainty and undefined boundaries. Think about transformational leaders. They need to know what’s going to resonate with their people to bring them back into the fold, bring them together and re-integrate and operate in this new normal. As the leader, how do you assess first when your team or your organization is ready to accept that new normal? What are the first steps that you take to building it?
This new normal is talking about ambiguity. Nobody knows what the future looks like. I’m not going to say hopeful because I know that’s a problem in your strategic planning. There is an optimistic viewpoint on that. It’s that there’s an opportunity for us to redesign these communities that we call organizations in ways that better serve not just the needs of the business and shareholders but also the needs of the people who comprise them. As leaders think about coming back to work. Part of what we need to do is be intentional about how we understand the moral relationship and interdependence we have with the people around us.
Any interpersonal situation brings a moral element. Whether or not you choose to acknowledge it, there’s a responsibility we have. There’s a woman at Rutgers named Joanne Ciulla who talks about ethical leadership. She says that leadership is a complex moral relationship between people based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion and a shared vision of the good. Going back to this self-awareness piece, we have opportunities in organizational life to get clear about what we think our vision of the good is. We have an opportunity to get other people on board with that. How do we do that? We build trusting relationships where our vision of the future is compelling to people both in its objective value and also its subjective resonance. It creates the conditions, structures and operating models that allow us to fulfill that collective and shared vision of the good.
What is an opportunity in disruption is that we’ve broken the old mold. There were assumptions that some organizations had about working from home. We don’t want anybody working from home. We need to see that they’re in their offices. That turns out it wasn’t so terrible for them to have people work from home. Sometimes you need a crisis to unfreeze your mental model of what’s possible. What we need to do before we refreeze into whatever the new normal is, is to consider with intent what’s the environment, relationships among people, and the metrics for performance that we want? In the last several years, the power of the shareholder has become outsized in making organizational decisions. If we can reconsider that and say that shareholder is one stakeholder in this relationship and in fact, there are other similarly important stakeholders that we need to attend to, then we set up systems that support that.
That’s with the employees and the rest of the team being key stakeholders. If the vision aligns everybody, gets that buy-in and it draws everybody back into the organization. People align to vision. You can’t build great things without everybody who sits there saying, “I’m doing this because I want to make this great.” What about choice? I hear it a lot because people are like, “You were in the military so you made all the decisions.” My comment is, “No. Decision-making is centralized at certain leadership levels, but the input to that decision-making is bottom-up where you’re going to go around the organization. The best ideas come from those people who are operating and the ones who have to execute.” The team members have to put the rubber to the road on this and make it work. When you look at them and you say, “What do you guys want to do? What do you think about this?” I might make the decision but other input is critical in the evaluation of the best decision to make. If you spread choice around in times this, can that help to foster that community?
When you spread choice, you spread leadership. Part of what typifies an agile organization is leadership can come from anywhere. To your point, a lot of the best insights come from the sensing system at the boundary of the organization. Those are all of the people who touch your suppliers and customers. The outside world is shelled with people across the organization. Why would you ever have one person make a decision about that?
A lot of that important data comes from throughout the organization. Just as leaders need to create a condition where they get feedback about their own effectiveness, they also need to get information so that they can make informed decisions about where the enterprise needs to go. This idea that the organization structure or this hierarchy of jobs is the same thing as the operating model sometimes gets in the way of organization decision making. They become these layers that you’ve got to work through. The exciting thing about organization design or the exciting opportunity is to rethink how these social systems activities work, so they can be dynamic and fluid and respond quickly rather than having to go through some structured chain of command when it doesn’t make sense.
I love the conversation and how we’re able to unpack the how-to on this. I have a list now that we’re going to execute it on. We’re going to do this a few more times. We’re going to provide this how-to. We’re going to tie in the conversations from some of the stories of elite performance. We’re going to give the readers an opportunity to get better every single day as they read this show about how to become great elite performers every single day.
Thanks, Fran. I appreciate it.