The Importance of Being Purposeful

This is a refreshed version of a post I wrote in March, 2010

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why-am-I-hereWhen I first came to Vancouver to take up my new role as a Human Resources Consultant with a major bank, my boss and I agreed that I should go on a road trip and meet with as many corporate banking employees as possible. It was sort of an orientation thing for me and perhaps provided a chance for everyone else to give me the “once over”. Coming from Toronto, it seemed I was automatically not to be trusted.

On one occasion, I was to talk with a number of Corporate Account Managers. My intent was to get to know them as individuals; to learn about their ambitions; their challenges; and how we might better support their efforts. It is entirely possible though that I did not adequately declare my goal, because the first person I encountered, pulled his chair very close to mine; stared sharply into my face and said, “I make money for the bank. What do you do?

Aside from the obvious attempt to intimidate me, his question was meant to suggest that as a person who made no direct contribution to the bottom line, whatever my purpose, I was an expense to the organization and consequently, of less value.

This is not an uncommon perspective to take, especially in large organizations. But at the time, I couldn’t help but think  there was something gravely missing from this outlook.

It occurs to me now that “making money for the bank”, while an admirable outcome, did not tell me anything about what this fellow saw as his purpose. And, for me at least, there is something lost when a person seems to view his primary raison d’être as making money.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I like money as well as the next person and there is a primal need to earn it and manage it prudently. But, the purpose of most jobs, or even most businesses is probably not principally about money. It is more than likely something else, something that has to do with providing a service. Making money is an outcome of that. The amount of money earned is usually determined by the quality and consistency of the service delivered and the ability of those who deliver it, to engender loyalty among a growing constituency.

But sometimes I think we forget. We take our eye away from our fundamental purpose and allow ourselves to get fixated on the dollars. And that’s when we risk running afoul of ourselves. We become greedy. We get our priorities out of order. And then we get into trouble.

For instance, there continue to be number of “recall” situations in the automobile industry. Somewhere along the line, I suspect the affected companies have strayed from their fundamental purpose, which to me goes something like; Make good, reliable cars & keep people safe, or something to that effect. It doesn’t have to be complicated. People just have to know what it is and be able to access it when they need to re-focus.

And that is where good leadership is key. People need to know why their jobs exist; whom they are there to serve; and how it all fits together.

I think this is so because…

It helps us in making good decisions and prioritizing appropriately.

If we train ourselves to ask the question; How will doing this, (or not doing this) help me to serve my purpose? The answer will often give us the information we need to move forward.

It helps us when we tackle problems.

Often problems can start to build on each other and become so complex that we get lost in them. When this happens, it sometimes helps to get back to the basic questions like;  What is my main purpose and who am I here to serve?

It helps us stay connected to the overall purpose of the organization.

Knowing why our jobs exist and how they fit into the bigger picture makes it easier to stay focused on what’s important.

It gives value to every role in the organization, not just a few.

If you nurture a culture that identifies the purpose and value of each job in relation to the overall vision and to each other, everyone in the organization has an opportunity to feel important.

It promotes good stewardship.

If we are clear about our purpose, it is that much easier to recognize and fulfill our responsibilities to those we serve.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Oh, and here’s an afterthought for you to chew on…or not.

I tend to be an idealist and often write about the way things “should be” but I find myself having to acknowledge that some people actually see “making money” as their primary purpose, and no kind of proof to the contrary could convince them otherwise. 
However, for most of us anyway, a purpose like that is too fragile and volatile to sustain and build on over time with the consequences of the ups and downs such a purpose suggests being way too heavy for most people to endure.

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Employee Engagement…What’s in a Name?


Naming-pic1A few years ago,  I was spending a lot of time at the hospital. My husband had had a serious stroke and so my days were spent largely going to and fro, admittedly in a bit of a haze. I didn’t have time to notice too much of anything outside the small sphere of my personal concern but there was one thing that stood out, one thing that I noticed each morning as I walked past.

The Hospital Human Resources Department had changed its name to The Employee Engagement Department.

At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder what they might be doing differently now that they weren’t doing when they were called The Human Resources Department. And it started me thinking. It’s easy to change a name but not so easy to live up to it. In the case of the hospital employees, I wondered what their experience was like working under the newly popular umbrella of Employee Engagement. Were they more interested or involved? Were they happier? Were their issues and concerns being heard more than before? Were their opinions being sought out more often? Were their teams more functional and productive? Did they feel more energized and valued? Were the hospital’s costs better managed or the patients’ experience enhanced?

Of course I don’t know the real answers to any of those questions except to say that my short observation of this particular hospital staff led me to believe that not much had appreciably changed.  And perhaps that’s the point. You can change the label on something but it won’t make the substance of it any different unless you a do something differently or introduce something new. Simply calling it something else just doesn’t get the job done. So maybe there are a couple of ways of looking at this. Do you change the name first to create a mental visual around what you want to achieve? Or, do you re-label only when you can be satisfied that what you have to offer bears a reasonable resemblance to the name you give it? I’m kind of leaning to the latter here. After all if you take a cherry pie and label it “apple”, it may resemble an apple pie from the outside but unless you change what’s inside, it’s going to stay a cherry pie no matter what you call it.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

*Note: a refreshed version of an original posted in March 2010

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Leadership & Creating an Environment of Service

Servamt Leadership 2 No_optA lot has been said about the leader as “servant”. I expect, given that it is a relatively young term (having been ‘born’ in 1970), it is also subject to wide interpretation. As such, while some people will experience great results from their efforts to serve, others will consider it a fad that will go away if they ignore it. Still others will make every effort to embrace the notion of the Servant Leader but find themselves exhausted, confused and possibly resentful because people seem to be walking all over them.

So what to do?

Well, first I’m thinking that we need some clarity about what it means to serve or be a servant. So I looked it up in a number of dictionaries and found this:

“Servant leaders are humble stewards of their organizations’ resources.”

A Servant is one who serves another, providing help in some manner.”

“A servant is a person who performs duties for others”.

So far so good.

Then I went to the Thesaurus for some synonyms for the word servant. Between the words attendant and steward lay these words, lackey, flunky, minion and drudge.  Okay then, herein may lie a problem.

Perhaps it is that many of us, when we think of the term Servant Leadership, take this subservient perspective (a.k.a. lackey, flunky, minion and drudge). In other words, it suggests that by serving, we are also submitting to the whims of others for no other reason than to render them superior. And, let’s face it, our egos are going to have a hard time with that. So, if you have been leaning in that direction when you think about the notion of Servant Leadership, I have some good news for you. I don’t think it’s about that at all.

Here’s what I do believe it’s about. It’s about…

knowing the Over-arching purpose I believe a good servant leader will focus on an over-arching purpose. This purpose becomes the master and the guide for all activities undertaken within the framework of the company. The leader serves the purpose through people. For instance, Southwest airlines’ over-arching purpose is stated as: “To provide the best service and lowest fares to the short haul, frequent-flying, point-to-point, non-interlining traveler.” This simple statement lets everyone know why Southwest Airlines is in business and whom it is there to serve.

However, in order to succeed, this understanding of service must permeate the organization and so it also becomes the role of the leader to:

Serve the people who are working to fulfill the over-arching purpose. This means providing the resources needed for people to do their jobs well and happily. It includes delivering needed training, supplies, connections, information, accommodation, direction and anything else that allows people working in the company to move the organization closer to the achievement of its purpose.

Encourage and develop an environment where people serve each other.  Where we can go wrong with this servant leadership thing is that we fail to expect all people working in the organization to serve too. Or, we simply don’t convey it very well.

Those who believe servant leadership to be a role only for the designated leader would be wrong. In truth, an environment that embraces service will do so in an all-encompassing way. This means that regardless of title or position, each person will both lead and serve another, or a group of others, to achieve company goals and make a contribution to the achievement of its purpose.

So, having said all that, what does it actually take to create this environment where service is king? Well, for what it’s worth, this is what I think about that.

It takes Discipline: Staying focused on the over-arching purpose and using it, as a guide for providing service to others is not easy. As humans, we can become easily distracted. It may be easy to stay the course and remain true to the purpose when times are good. But, when they are not so good, it becomes tempting to stray and do what is expedient instead.

It takes Humility: Putting others before ourselves is sometimes a challenge, especially in business, but humility is an essential ingredient in a successful service environment. I’m not talking about being obsequious here. I’m talking about simply being unselfish and mindful of others’ needs and contributions.

It takes Collaboration: Simply put, in order to serve the purpose and each other, we have to learn to work together, avoid internal politics and protectionism and share our ideas and resources with each other more freely.

It takes Trust: Trust is often an earned thing. However, a leader who serves the people will, in my view anyway, start from a platform of trust rather than skepticism. In my experience, people respond well to a leader who conveys faith in their intent. People who feel trusted are more likely to be willing to serve the over-arching purpose. Will you be disappointed? Yep, from time to time you will. But, if you start out not trusting my hunch is you’re going to be disappointed anyway.

And:

It takes Faith: I’m not talking about the religious kind of faith here. I’m talking about the kind of faith that makes you believe so strongly in your company’s purpose and its people that all of your activities centre around them and the financial results that you realize from that come as a by-product of your collective effort.

So, is servant leadership for the faint of heart? I’d say no. Is it about subservience, or slavery? Certainly not.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

*Note: this post was originally published in 2010.

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Filed under communication, Customer Service, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Style, organizational Development

Trust: If You Build It, They Will Come…and Stay

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Trust. It’s a small word and yet, it holds the key to success in just about every walk of life. And, it’s one of those things that is often hard earned yet easily destroyed. That makes it precious.

From a corporate perspective, we all pretty much know that building trust in organizations is key. But what does it look like when it’s in action? Well,

here are some ideas around what we might see in an organization that has successfully built high levels of trust.

As a Boss, people are open and candid with me. They trust that I’m not in the business of shooting messengers or punishing anyone for giving me straight and honest information about myself or anything else for that matter. People working with me, are not afraid to be creative or try new things. And, when they make mistakes, they own up to them and are willing to share their lessons with others. As a boss too, I strive for transparency in my dealings with others and that means I talk to them, ask for their opinions and listen to their advice. I feel well rewarded and highly regarded.

As part of a team, I don’t waste time engaging in gratuitous political maneuverings. I focus instead on building solid and positive relationships with my colleagues for my benefit, and for the team. I trust them to do the same. I make sure I fulfill my responsibilities to the team and the organization and take pride in both what I produce and what the team produces. My team and I enjoy working together and pitch in to do whatever work needs doing, even if it is technically “not my job”. I always get the credit I deserve for the contributions I make. I feel that I belong.

As an individual contributor, I make sure that I understand my role in the organization and if I am unsure, I ask someone who can teach me. Similarly, if I have knowledge that someone else does not have, but needs, I am not hesitant about sharing what I know. I trust that sharing will give us all the power we need to do our jobs well and succeed. I feel competent and important.

As a sales person, I believe in my product. My clients’ needs come before my own. Many of my clients have been with me for a long time. I continue to work to earn their ongoing loyalty. I am not afraid to approach my boss if I think my client has needs that could be met differently. I offer my ideas freely. I have earned my clients’ respect. I do not feel the need to compete with my colleagues except in a way that challenges us all to do better. I feel productive and successful.

As an organization, we continue to experience growth in our business. Our client base is strong and increasing. Our employees are actively engaged in building and supporting our business. We value their contribution and make every effort to acknowledge their accomplishments in a variety of ways that have meaning for them. We feel confident about the future.

Okay, so some of this might sound a bit utopian. I mean, I used to have a boss that hid around corners at lunch hour trying to catch people taking more than their allotted time for lunch. While hopefully, bosses who behave like that are going the way of the dinosaur, I suspect a lot of work has yet to be done to build the kind of trust it takes to bring all of the scenarios I describe to life.

Nonetheless it is perhaps something to strive for because the price of under-valuing, (or worse, not doing), the work of building trust in organizations is very high indeed.

I am reminded, strangely, of a little clip from the movie City Slickers where Jack Palance’s character, Curly, talks about the “one thing” that holds the secret of life. Here it is:

When it comes to the secret of successful organizations, I tend to think that the “one thing” is trust.

What do you think?

*Note: originally posted in February 2010

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The Story of A Great Leader

teacherIf you were to ask me to describe someone who demonstrated greatness in leadership, I
might be tempted to paint the picture of a larger-than-life super hero, perhaps a president, a king, or a captain of industry.

I might not come up with Roberta Guaspari. Nonetheless I believe she is just that, a great leader.

Roberta Guaspari teaches children to play the violin. When she first started, she was a single parent to two young boys. To earn her living she arranged to provide violin lessons in school to the children of East Harlem. What she had going for her was the love of music; the ability to play; and the strong desire to make a difference for children whose opportunities were limited by their circumstances.

She has a clear and passionate vision which is simply,“for kids to have music in their lives

She believes that her vision is important because music, “empowers these children with the ability to make something beautiful that allows them to believe in themselves and know they’re special”

This is Roberta’s primary purpose, to help children love music, play music and believe in themselves. It is not about money or attention for herself but about something bigger than that, much bigger.  She is a great leader because not only can she see a better future for the children she teaches, she helps them get there, even against great odds.

In 1991, Roberta’s music program was cut from the school board budget. That meant, not only was she out of a job but the children (and their parents), who so depended on her, would lose something that had become vital to their development and future.

Roberta did not back down. Instead, she kept her focus. She forged relationships with people who had the power to help. And they did. She plucked up her courage and made much larger strides than I suspect even she thought herself capable of. Throughout it all, it seems  she never lost sight of her primary purpose.

Empathy, Vision, Focus, Determination, Courage, …and a violin. This is what makes Roberta Guaspari a great leader.

And, (the violin, notwithstanding),  such qualities exist in other great leaders, each of whom typically:

  • Have clear, well-articulated visions of the future
  • Lead with great will, humility and focus
  • Build strong alliances with a variety of people
  • Strive to achieve things that are greater than themselves and for the greater good

To demonstrate that the kind of leadership I describe can bring great results, here is a clip of Roberta Guaspari presenting her students at Carnegie Hall in a fine performance accompanied by Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman and Mark O’Connor.

Great leadership Indeed.  that’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Note: This is a refreshed version of a post I wrote in 2010.

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Five Elements That Help Create Real Teams

2137737248_e9f3e429d1_zThe word “team” is a perfectly good word but one in great danger of crossing the line that divides meaningful language from jargon. We’ve probably all heard it.

You have to be a team player“, they say.

I am a team player,” they write on their resumes,

And, even CEO’s talk to the masses of the importance of being on the “team”

You get the idea.

The point is that we throw around this word “team” in a very cavalier fashion, maybe because it has that warm glow of inclusion about it. Who knows?

So, what do we have to do to ensure that we are creating real teams?

Well, I have a few thoughts about that and here they are.

We are likely creating a real team when we ensure that:

Everyone on the team clearly understands its purpose

This seems a bit obvious but really, sometimes people come together assuming that they share the same idea as to why they’re there but this isn’t always the case. As such, it is always wise to ensure that the purpose and objectives of the team are commonly understood. It might take a little extra time and patience to get there, but failing to gain this kind of clarity can result in people running around like chickens in a yard, accomplishing nothing.

Individuals on the team each know their roles in fulfilling the purpose

Presumably, when we form teams, we do it with some idea as to how each member can contribute. However, it is always a good practice to give people an opportunity to say where they might make their best contribution. After all, it stands to reason that we do our best work when we are operating from our strengths. And, I expect we are that much happier about it too. As well, knowing where we, and our skills fit into the fulfillment of the team’s purpose helps us keep on track.

Individuals on the team see their roles as being no more, or no less important than anyone else’s

To me, a true team does not involve hierarchy. Yes, there is usually a team leader in the formal sense but the thing that is placed highest in the minds of all of the team members, including its leader, is the fulfillment of the purpose. That means that the work becomes more important than any individual’s need to be, or be seen to be, the boss.

We pay attention to the team dynamic every time a new member is introduced

The nature and culture of a team is something of a sensitive thing. The informed leader will appreciate that the introduction of a new member requires a period of adjustment, a little time to review team roles, skills and potential contribution. It is a time of orientation for the new member and for re-balancing and re-connecting to the purpose for the rest. It need not be a long drawn-out thing but without it, it is easy to lose the clarity required to get things done.

The team works together until its purpose is fulfilled.

It must be said that when one purpose is fulfilled, it is not unusual for teams to re-form and focus on achieving another goal. In this way teams can stay intact for a long time, changing and transforming as new people join and others leave. However, I think that in order to have a raison d’être a real team always needs to be able to easily connect to a tangible purpose.

Of course, nothing is simple. There are all kinds of teams… independent teams, interdependent teams, multi-disciplinary teams, sports teams, project teams, self-managed teams. Each has its challenges. But, it seems to me that no matter how big or complicated the team is, to capably function as a team, these elements have to be present.

Otherwise, it’s probably a group.

And by the way… you don’t have to be a member of a team to fulfill a worthy purpose or accomplish good things. But, if you say you are part of a team just know that it takes more than just saying it to make it so.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

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Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Leading Teams, Teambuilding

Leaders and the Learning Organization

senge2It is a testament to our naïveté about culture that we think that we can change it by simply declaring new values. Such declarations usually produce only cynicism. ~ Peter Senge

Peter Senge is one of my favourite Thought Leaders. You will probably know that he has been around for a while but his message, at least for me, is as relevant to our current time as it was when he first introduced his book, The Fifth Discipline, twenty something years ago.

So far, in my experience anyway, we have not been great students of his philosophies…or we have been great students but just, well, crappy at the execution part, proof perhaps that naïveté also lives in our belief that any of this stuff is easy.

There was a time when everyone was jumping onto The Learning Organization bandwagon. This usually happened when times were good, when organizations felt a little more ebullient about their prospects and generous toward their employees. And then when things started to look a little gloomy, heads turned back to the way things were. Budgets were cut and the Learning part of the organization dried up while the focus snapped back in line with the notion that wisdom and decisions could only come from the few and learning for the many was a luxury no one could afford.

I’m thinking though that it is in the difficult times that leaders need to embrace the concepts of the Learning Organization and to build a culture of shared leadership.

I must confess that not being particularly academic in my own learning process, I found The Fifth Discipline a little dry. Having said that, I also think the five main components of a Learning Organization continue to make great sense and are actionable, to greater or lesser degrees, by everyone regardless of whether we lead in large organizations, small ones, or are simply striving to lead a meaningful life.

Each of the Learning Organization components, personal mastery, mental models, team learning, shared vision and systems thinking allow for the opportunity to create lives and organizations that are resilient, flexible, inclusive and dynamic. The question often is though, how do we to start?

Here are some of my thoughts about that:

Personal Mastery: is, for me, the place where everything really begins. Taking the time to study and understand our reality, and our purpose, serves not only ourselves but also everyone with whom we come in contact.

Practically speaking, there are a lot of instruments available on the Internet that will help us confirm what we might already inherently know about ourselves or uncover some things we didn’t know. However we do it, the key to successful personal mastery, I think, is to trust in the information we receive; to be curious and ask questions either formally or informally; to observe the impact we have on others when we interact with them; and to act on any new knowledge we get about ourselves.

Mental Models: are, simply put, about assumptions and biases in our thinking. There is a proverb that says, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.

This speaks to the dangers of clinging to, and operating from, narrow perspectives. I believe the goal for leaders in this century is to widen the lens of their thinking by challenging not only their own assumptions but also the beliefs and biases on which their organizations operate. I hazard to say that if we were each to bring heightened awareness to our assumptions, our ability to be receptive to change would be that much greater.

Team Learning: There are many books written on the topic of teams, and an amazing array of teams within organizations too. It can get pretty complex. But suffice it to say that in an age where shared leadership is, or will become, critical, the need to understand the dynamics and functional operation of teams is pretty great. Here, I think it starts with gaining an understanding of what a truly successful and highly functional team looks like. In my observation, it always seems to come down to how team members communicate with each other; how they manage conflict and; how they examine their successes and more particularly, their failures.

Shared Vision: I expect this one is pretty familiar to most people. And yet its usefulness is so often diminished because the vision is developed at the top of the organization and seldom shared by those who are expected to work toward its achievement. To me, a Shared Vision is just that…shared. It may start with one person but if it is going to come alive and guide the company’s activities, it must be embraced and shared by all. It doesn’t have to be a sweeping statement with big words either. For example, Zappos.com, the online department store’s vision is, Delivering Happiness. It is a clear, simple statement that provides great direction to anyone who works there. To me, the message is, if what you do delivers happiness, it’s probably the right thing.

Systems Thinking: When most people talk about Senge’s model of a Learning Organization, they usually start with Systems Thinking. I keep it to the end because really this is about paying attention to the connections between and among a variety of elements that make up the whole. In organizations, we have this tendency to create silos of operation where people make decisions based only on their own needs. When this happens, others are affected, (often negatively) and that creates unnecessary and unproductive tension within the organization.

So, I suppose a place to start with respect to systems thinking is to ask, Who will be affected by what we are about to do? How do we involve them? Why should we care?

Really, systems thinking is  kind of like the plumbing in an old apartment complex. If there is a breakdown in one person’s apartment, it can affect the water supply to all of the others.

Some people may think the concepts put forth in The Fifth Discipline are old too. But, I think that they are timeless. If more organizations were to embrace and enact these philosophies, they would find ways to remain pliable and resilient in even the most treacherous of time.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

*note: this post was originally published in 2010

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Filed under Change Management, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Vision, Leading Teams, Learning, organizational culture, organizational Development, Organizational Effectiveness