The shadow you cast

A number of years ago I was dealing with the behaviour of an executive colleague. For a number of reasons their conduct had been called into question and we were trying to unpick a somewhat difficult situation. Once it was all sorted I was amazed to hear other colleagues tell me that this had been a repetitive occurrence throughout their career.

Whilst they’d been more junior within the organisation, their behaviour had been an annoyance; troublesome but manageable. But as they progressed through the ranks (one can question the judgment of those that facilitated this rise) it started to be more damaging to the organisation as a whole, it created a bigger impression.

The closer to the sun you climb, the larger the shadow you cast.

I used this phrase last week to talk about the importance of leadership role models. It’s a factor that many leaders forget and therefore undervalue the potential benefit. To put it another way, as a leader you can choose to behave in a way that not only benefits those directly around you, but those further afield in your organisation.

With all the talk of authentic leadership, we forget to explore the reason why. What lies behind the value of authenticity? The simple answer is that people will engage and follow authenticity more readily. But I think it is even more important than that.

I can’t cite the evidence, but I was told recently about a study of people on London buses. They found that when a passenger alighted the bus and said “thank you” to the driver, the probability of other passengers doing the same increased. Similarly, the same has been seen with passengers giving up seats on trains or picking up litter in the street.

And at the same time, we know that if the person carrying out the act is in a perceived position of power, the effect is multiplied.

If you’re a leader in an organisation you have both an opportunity and responsibility to role model the behaviours that you want to see and to encourage them in every interaction. The power goes much further than any leadership development intervention, value statement or strategic model. And even better it costs nothing and can be deployed at will.

So what are you waiting for?

Lead change with care

I’ve written before about toxic cultures, but I was struck by the story that I read over the weekend about the legal case being brought against former executives of France Telecom. I’m no expert on the case in hand, but the story sets out a culture of harassment  through constant change and disruption as efficiency savings were sought.

There’s a huge spectrum ranging from the extreme cases detailed in this story through to the ordinary change of organisational life and we need to be careful not to conflate the two, but there are reminders in the extreme that can help us in our everyday practice. We can all argue that, “it’s not like that here”, but it never hurts us to check and be sure.

The first check point is when we stop seeing employees as human beings. You can pick this up through the language that is used in organisations, the way that senior leaders talk about people as a collective. Most organisational change will have a human impact, but when we fail to genuinely recognise that, problems are not far away.

When change becomes a thing in itself, you’re facing a second check point. Organisations that become focused on change, but without realising why. The impact on people throughout is disorientation and confusion, neither of which are good for mental wellbeing. Most people can go through significant change and transition when they understand the why, but struggle when they feel constantly done to.

Finally, when leadership teams lose touch with their teams you’ve reached the third checkpoint. As a leader you can only make good decisions if you are well-informed. One of the most important sets of data is the feedback from the people who work in the organisation itself. I’m not talking about the annual survey alone, but about the informal feedback that tells you how things really are.

Put simply, leaders have an overarching responsibility for every single employee in their organisation. That doesn’t mean we should avoid tough choices or decisions, it doesn’t me would should be change adverse, but it does mean that we need to care. Hopefully none of us will ever experience the extremity of the France Telecom situation, however, each day as we go about our work, we should always check in and make sure we are staying true to our responsibility to our people.

Gauging the speed of change

We’ve all been there, the conversation where the speed of change is, “just not quick enough”. I’ve probably uttered the words myself. One of the biggest tricks for any leader in this circumstance is being able to differentiate between the input activity and the desired output. Or, the things we need to do in order to get the results we want to see.

It’s a wonderfully alluring concept to equate the speed of delivering the first with the achievement of the second, but sadly there is no direct line between the two. Regardless of their experience, leaders will be told to reduce the time to implement, to condense the programme of activities to realise results much more quickly.  And many will happily comply to demonstrate the activities have been done, ahead of schedule. Which is good, right?

Except the desired change doesn’t happen as we wanted.

But that’s ok, because it must be the fault of someone else, somewhere else. We absolutely nailed our contribution – they just didn’t do what we needed.

The inescapable issue is that there is an optimum rate of change in any organisation and in any situation and it won’t always be the same, dependent on context. The key to successful change is twofold –

  • Understanding the contextual climate for change
  • Measuring success on outputs and inputs

To give a simple example, let’s imagine a bottle of organisational goodness (aka water) which we trying to unlock and set free into a new organisational design (aka a bowl). On one end of the spectrum, we could hold the bottle upside down and shake it frantically, the water will probably come out pretty quickly, the chance of splashing, missing the bowl and causing a mess though are high. At the other end the spectrum, we could tip it slightly below horizontal, place the neck against the lip of the bowl and transfer all the water. It will be super slow, but highly effective.

The reality is that somewhere between the two is the most effective spot, based on the deign of the bottle and the bowl.

Ultimately, the answer to success lies in the name itself – “change”. If all we were interested in was the activity, we’d probably call it “stuff”. One of the key skills of any leader is to be able to articulate the importance of the embedding and sustaining of change and not get caught into the organisational pressure to do some stuff quickly. It won’t always be the answer people want to hear, it won’t always make you the most popular, but if you’re genuinely keen on delivering success, you need to be sure everyone knows and agree what it actually looks like.

Note: Having researched the optimum way to extract water from a bottle at speed, I’m led to believe that in principle it is to swirl the bottle in a circular motion, creating a vortex through the centre that allows water to extract via the sides whilst air rises through the vortex. Sounds complicated.

Sometimes people will fail

Here’s a thing; Not everyone can be successful in their job.

And that’s ok.

There are multiple reasons why failure happens, it can be the role, the requirements, the skills, the culture of the organisation, the leadership and management or just dumb luck. But we need to be ok with the fact that failure in role is real and normal. It is an inevitable factor of multiple people coming together to deliver an outcome or result.

I’ve worked in organisations with hire and fire cultures, they normally have little to do with performance and are more about dominant personalities, prejudice and conformity. Those that aren’t seen to “fit in” are rapidly shown the door, normally with some reference to, “not cutting it” or some other imprecise statement.

I’ve also worked in organisations where individual, persistent failure is normalised and accepted for far too long until a moment of  “truth” that often leads to a bloody and ugly end. Polite organisations which will tell individuals one thing, then moan to anyone who will listen behind their back.

Failure and underperformance can be the result of the individual or the organisation, it really doesn’t matter. The point is that it happens and dealing with it at the earliest possible moment is the best thing for all of the parties concerned. Nobody wants to come to work thinking that they’re doing a good job, but failing to meet requirements. Nobody wants to work with someone who is under delivering or performing. And nobody wants to manage or lead someone who simply doesn’t deliver.

Recognising and accepting failure is an important part of being able to deal with it in a mature, supportive and grown up way. When we avoid it, fail to recognise or accept it, we tend to want to make it disappear as quickly as possible – that’s why you have the cultures I’ve described above. Instead, what if we were to embrace it, to discuss it and to approach it as a natural facet of our human existence? How would that change the working live of the people in the organisations in which we exist?