Few months ago I was waiting to see the general manager of an important international company, very active in the Romanian market. Until the time of the meeting, I was sitting in an open office space, right in the middle of the employees, observant witness, trying to understand the culture and the atmosphere. Something very interesting happened, letting me think about multinational companies’ culture and operational habits.
Here it is, a middle manager, talking to her colleague, maybe a trainee or a junior specialist. They were sitting together, concretely sharing a desk, shoulder by shoulder, and having the blue glass wall right behind them. “Hey, we have an appointment, let’s go the meeting room” – said the more experienced person. “Well, I don’t know if it is available, let me check what I can do.” – answered the junior, well transported by the importance of the moment. And here is me, I can’t abstain from asking a question: “What do you do if you don’t have the meeting room available?” “Well, we postpone it, what else can we do?” Suddenly I remember the answer of a fresh graduate during a job interview: “I see myself well accomplished in a couple of years, sitting at my desk and having direct reports and internal meetings!”
Eventually, I was invited in the main meeting room to assist the top executives’ meeting, this was the purpose of my visit, team coaching, to observe, ask questions and challenge the team. Imagine a formal meeting room, people thoughtfully analyzing Excel spreadsheets and the GM introducing data in the main sheet, data somehow forcepsed from the other managers, commitments for the next fiscal year. Oh yeah, it was that time of the year. “You don’t have a flipchart in the main meeting room?” – I ask, a little bit displeased. “Why, we all have laptops, that’s all we need!” Few minutes later, few managers left the room, they have to attend another “call with the UK HQ”. All data is in the master spreadsheet by now. “See you tomorrow; we will come to bear this picture in front of our Regional Manager.”
This story is repeated over and over in many places, for some corporate guys this is the only one way to perpetuate the tradition, while avoiding meaningful work. They are territorial, protecting what they have and working on the corporate “legacy”, passing it to the new generations.
I immediately challenged the idea of having “a picture”, a nice one, to present it in the next important meeting. Something was not good for me. “What is the purpose of having a nice picture, even if it does not reflect completely the reality?” After 20 seconds of silence, they started to explain to me (like I didn’t know already) how important is to be well appreciated by regional managers, how everybody else is doing the same thing, telling me more things about internal competition and their struggle for resources. I was in a good day, daring for more impact out of my engagement. “How can you get more help is you don’t ask for it?” Something just happened. They decided to add a couple of slides summarizing the current difficulties and special requirements to fix the most imperative state of affairs.
Visiting a typical management meeting at a company and I begun wondering if all the facts about the company’s revenue, income, stock price, competitive situation and morale could have been wrong. In these meetings, they rarely talk about unacceptable performance, the pace is often leisurely, the issues discussed are of marginal importance or focused on “how to look good”. The energy level is rarely high, discussions become heated only when one manager tries to grab resources from another or to point the finger of blame elsewhere. Not to mention that once in while you hear someone sincerely make a speech about how good things are. In this complacency-filled organizations, change initiatives are hard to implement, they are almost dead on arrival.
I just wonder how big would be the shock for a corporate manager if he would not have any meeting scheduled for one entire week. Does this mean that he is going to the wall? How can he exercise the social status? I guess everybody needs his own small fief to justify the corporate BMW.
Teams of people working together are generally the best instruments for generating results, turning ideas into desirable products and services. Teams can do wonders, but they can also be serious blockades to real progress if they are not properly designed, motivated and operated.
What is an effective team, especially these days when market is tough and personal values seem to be under attack?
- Competent people working together. An effective team is composed of people who each bring critical competencies and effort. Each is a link in a chain of competencies that, together, has the talent, knowledge, organizational clout, experience and know-how to get the job done. If any competencies are weak, they must be strengthened.
- A clear, common goal. In our story, most of the people had a common goal, but not the right one. They common goal was to survive by looking good. Many times, members of the teams have different ideas about the team’ purpose. It’s nearly impossible to be successful when team members cannot articulate a clear and common goal. In our case, an interesting and challenging goal would be to deliver performance, to prove everybody that the local team is an extraordinary group, working hard and smart regardless the market’s pressure. Being clear it’s important, but insufficient. The goal must also be compelling. People must see it as urgent, very important and worthy of effort. Without this, some members will not identify with the team or its purpose.
- Alignment. Alignment refers to the coordination of plans, effort and rewards with the highest goals of the organization. In an aligned organization, everyone is working in the right direction – and the rewards system encourages them to do so.
- A supportive environment. A team is a small organization embedded within a larger environment of operating units and functional departments. They depend on each other for resources, information and assistance. Leadership, support at the top is essential. Leaders make resources available and provide protection.
- Learning team skills. Teams should be trained in teamwork: members often need help in skills as listening, communicating with different kinds of people, decision making, conflict resolution and staying focused on the task. One of the most important progresses recorded in working with a client was to coach on how to run effective meetings. All seem obvious at the first sight but meeting are often vague and no decision is made. Distributing roles, creating rules for discussions, agenda and clear objectives. Attending as a coach, giving feedback made the difference in creating new habits, new success skills. Clients have been coached as a team, not as individuals.
Many managers have as a personal credo “to be loved”. They focus tremendous energy into making people comfortable, partially missing the point of delivering results – as a main purpose of the business. They run meetings on organizational health, measures to be successful as friendly coworkers. This is good, but I consider this to be somehow upside down. A more effective leadership philosophy would be to focus on successes and to train or coach the winning habits. It’s like a football team. Is the coach focusing on team building, drinking beers, having fun together? Or he creates play habits, rehearses the most efficient passing schemes, again and again, creating automatic responses – in order to score? If the team scores or wins the championship, the players will be happy and friends. Just observe the players who don’t get alone very well. When they score, they hug and kiss each other, that is team building based on success. Everybody wants to be successful and we are ready to accept everybody’s ideas and contribution – if this will bring us success, even working effectively together.
In team coaching sessions I often talk about this strategy and this is not always easily accepted. It happened to be rejected as a services provider; managers or owners considered that having a happy family at work is more important than accepting reality and start changing the current status quo. Sometimes, they come back in 3-4 months, deciding to go for the uncomfortable implementation and very soon they see the results. In one recent engagement, a company was losing valuable clients because of an inherited system of too democratic communication. Everybody was able to see the requests for information or request for offer but they were missing any management system for registering the requests and internal follow up. After personally testing the system (mystery shopper), they admitted that the current system is not perfect, sitting together with the team to create a more performing internal procedure. Lack of courage, comfortable zones? They are more acceptable to a certain extend if the market is growing, but this is not the time to accept laziness and lack of responsibility.
When confronted with change, people underestimate the flagrancy of task, many managers and employees will consider the first step “very, very tough”. Change requires great cooperation, initiative and willingness to make sacrifices. Establishing a sense of urgency is crucial to gaining needed cooperation. With complacency high, transformations usually go nowhere because few people are even interested in working on the change problem, they will find a thousand ingenious ways to withhold cooperation.
Increasing urgency demands removing major sources of complacency, eliminating signs of excess resources, setting higher standards both formally in the planning process and informally in day-to-day interaction; increasing the amount of external feedback everyone gets, rewarding honest talk in meetings and people who are willing to confront problems. It could be an upcoming crisis (“brace for the crisis to come”), significant customer service testimonials, competitors’ projects and many other scenarios meant to raise bot awareness and responsibility. We don’t see many bold moves more often because people working in overmanaged and underled cultures are generally taught that such actions are not sensible. Executives might also fear that they will be associated with “creating problems”. In fact they are afraid of creating possible conflicts and to create anxiety, at least at first. If top management consists only of cautious managers, no one will push the urgency rate sufficiently high and a major transformation will never succeed, with or without the intervention of an external consultant.
Creating such cultures is an exercise in transformation: increasing the urgency rate, creating the guiding coalition, and so on. In most industries today, the pressure to change is not intense, even if market is constantly changing, so it’s easy to delay.
Let the next generation of executives do it, things aren’t so bad.
Successful organizations will have to become more courageous and incubators of leadership. Developing the authentic leadership will demand flatter and leaner structures along with less controlling and more risk-taking cultures.
According to a recent Accenture research, coaching is an essential part for developing a solid culture and great leaders. Although coaching often refers to a way to correct specific performance concerns in the workforce as part of training initiatives, it also has a broader meaning in the context of leadership development and organization culture. The leaders’ ability to coach—a leadership capability that is increasingly essential in a marketplace where the performance of critical workforces, the retention of top talent and the ability to create and derive value from innovation are important to competitive advantage.
From that larger perspective, coaching is both a mindset and a set of behaviors by which leaders enable their people to assess an issue, identify appropriate actions, participate in decision making and achieve positive business results while simultaneously helping them learn and contribute. Leaders who are good coaches inspire and challenge others in their organizations to grow and develop; ultimately, such leaders are capable of achieving stronger business results than those less supportive and collaborative.