Recently I have been asked to lead several board and executive retreats through their annual strategic planning process. The similarities of their challenges are startling similar – regardless of industry, non-profit or for-profit organizations.
The days of plentiful donations for non-profits are gone. Double digit growth, for most companies, is a friend of distant past. Layoffs are a standard practice. They are trying to get more done with less. They are trying to rebuild and revive business using existing resources, which are scarce. Individuals are scared – they have seen what has happened to their peers and they are waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is a paralyzing condition. Many individuals are frankly treading water, keeping their heads down, and hunkering in their fox holes – scared they will be the next ones to get ‘the boot.’ Many times this paralyzing paradigm is not obvious to the leaders, it is a hidden cancer that is growing wildly – yet is slowly eroding any productivity or remaining passion the collective organization had. What happens to organizations when this becomes pervasive?
In a nutshell: they implode. Their worst fears become their reality. Believe me; I am seeing it across all industries – schools, healthcare institutions, and businesses. The executive leaders are struggling to keep the energy alive, the focus disciplined, and the passion energized, while facing the harsh realities of their situation. It is hard.
There is no standard answer to remedy this situation. Each organization must handle the challenge of rebuilding and reviving their teams in ways which are most appropriate for their cultures. There are, however, a few basic pillars which I have seen work regardless of the organization. These pillars, augmented by additional leadership coaching, mentoring, and other culture-enhancing strategies will help lay the foundation to weather and rebuild for the future.
1. Create a collective vision and mission. At the end of the day, all organizations are made up of people. These people need and want to tie their work to something bigger than them. They want to be part of making a difference in whatever industry or organization they are a part. It is simply not enough to ‘have a job’ and ‘be grateful to be among those still standing.’ They still want to be part of a team, pulling together toward a common goal. It is as simple as that. Building this vision – collectively, not in isolation is the first step. This is a vision which each person can buy into and get behind – which will lead to increased productivity, optimal use of time and talents, and retention of strong talent (physically and mentally). It must be real. It must be sincere. Once leaders tap into this power by creating an environment where individuals are valued and have grasped hands with their peers to deliver performance against all odds toward this common vision … the results are staggering.
2. Look the tiger in the eye. No one likes or respects a Pollyanna leader. Employees are smart. They typically ‘get’ when something is wrong before anyone even publicly acknowledges it. The most effective leaders tell the truth about the obstacles facing the organization. They own the reality. By doing so, they build trust with their teams, and reinforce that they are in touch with the situation. This is not to say that they are pessimists or naysayers, quite the opposite. They face the facts AND then set a clear direction on how they are going to move forward. As William Bridges has said so aptly in his book, Transitions, it is impossible to move away from the past, until we have a destination of where we are going now. It is the leader’s job to help reinforce that direction through actions, support, and ongoing communication to the troops.
3. Cheerleaders versus bullies. Too often, overzealous or rookie leaders, in the name of pushing change, become drill sergeants in driving that change. In hard times, when the pressure is paramount, they lose perspective. Everything becomes insignificant to ‘driving the change’ through brute force if necessary. Of late, I am seeing this so often – again, in all industries – schools, technology companies, and non-profits. The stakes are high. Jobs are on the line. Results are the metric. So, at all costs, the leaders are pushing for change, with sticks not carrots. From my perspective, this is clearly not the right balanced recipe for success. Sure, we need to hold individuals accountable for delivering results and eliminating the poor or even middle-of-the-road performance. However, this is not done effectively – or with any long-term or sustainable results – through bullying or duress to the team. This is the time to build hope, reinvigorate collective passion, and have one on one compassionate, authentic conversations with the team. It is the time to build trust, listen to the teams’ concerns, and provide support – even if the leader feels it is ‘beyond the scope of their job.’ That is irrelevant. Unusual challenges require leaders to tailor their behaviors to respond to these needs. Period.
My entire business has been built on the concept of Alignment: the power of the aligned individual, the aligned team, and the aligned organization – around common visions, goals, and collectively aligned efforts.
As leaders, we must realize we need to do just that: we lead the team. We lead through tough times and transitions by supporting that unified vision, listening and investing in the capabilities of our teams, and responding through positive reinforcement to keep the momentum going. The strength and power of effective leadership represented through strategic alignment of our directions, our people, and our processes will deliver sustainable change and results.