Category Archives: Establishing Direction

The Importance of Being Purposeful

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


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.


Filed under Establishing Direction, Leadership, Leadership Development, Organizational Effectiveness

Leadership Lessons from the Old Man and the Sea

The end of summer is, for me, also a time of beginnings.  And, it is a time when many of us choose to refresh or re-affirm our goals and plans, whatever they may be.  This post, originally presented in March, 2012, uses a popular Hemingway story to illustrate the importance of doing just that.


The other day, while channel surfing, I caught a glimpse of Spencer Tracy playing Santiago in Ernest Hemingway’s, The Old Man and the Sea.  It didn’t register much at the time because as you may know, when one channel surfs, the little grey cells kind of take a nap.  Later though, I began to think about that story and the lessons it has to teach us.


For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Santiago is an old fisherman living in a village not far from Havana.  Fishing is his livelihood and yet he has failed to catch any fish in eighty-four days. The young boy, who usually goes out with him, is instructed by his father to stay away from the old man. He is bad luck.  So Santiago goes fishing alone.

On the eighty-fifth day, he decides to go out further than he usually does because somewhere within him, he believes there is a big fish just meant for him.  His instinct proves to be correct as his hook and bait are swallowed by a Marlin so large it dwarfs the boat.

The Old man is determined to catch this fish.  He wants to prove that he isn’t bad luck. He envisions bringing the giant fish into the tiny harbour of his home with enough to feed the whole village.  Perhaps, deep down, he likes the idea of being a hero.

So, Santiago hangs onto the fishing line with all his might.  The fish fights valiantly all the while dragging the boat further and further out to sea.  The old man suffers as the line cuts through the muscle of his hands and his back goes into spasms of pain from pulling and resisting.

In the end, the fish tires enough to allow the old man to reel him in closer to the boat.  It is then that Santiago is successful in sinking his harpoon into the fish’s heart.  The battle is won.  But, the war is just beginning as the old man realizes the fish is bigger than the boat.  So with great diligence and respect, he straps the fish to the side of the boat and begins to make the very long journey home.

Over the course of the journey, the fish is attacked again and again by sharks.  And, as much as the old man fights to preserve it, he fails.  By the time he reaches home, he is completely exhausted… and the fish is reduced to a skeleton.


So, let’s, just for fun, suppose that Mr. Santiago is the CEO of his own company.  His fishing business is not doing well.  He has no allies except perhaps a young assistant who, while eager, is being influenced by his family to look for work elsewhere.

Mr. Santiago is desperate to save his business and his reputation in the business community. He decides to take a huge leap of faith without really thinking it through.

At first, it looks as if his tactic is paying off.  In fact, he starts to reel in more business than he can possibly handle.   And, it’s starting to draw the attention of other businesses hungry to expand.  Mr. Santiago fights hard to protect his interests with the few resources he has, but to no avail.   Eventually, he is forced to close his doors and the glorious outcome he envisioned when he set out, becomes unattainable.

So, what advice might we give Mr. Santiago to help him realize a different outcome?  Well, a few things come to mind for me:

Have a clear goal

Spend some time envisioning the goal.  In your vision, where are you fishing? How much and what kind of fish are you catching? How big is your boat? What equipment do you have?  Who is giving you support?  What have you learned that you don’t know now?  How did you learn it?

Build a plan to support the goal.

Being able to clearly imagine the goal is important but you must also have a realistic plan for achieving it.  This includes ensuring you have sufficient resources and capability to execute the plan.   And, by the way, a good plan is only good when it is acted upon. Otherwise it becomes an exercise in wasting your time.

Consider the potential risks and rewards

Before venturing into uncharted waters, it’s a good idea to first reflect on what you stand to gain and lose by doing so.  If the risk seems greater than the potential reward, you might want to re-think the strategy.

Develop Solid Relationships with others

John Donne once said, “No man is an island entire of itself”.   With that in mind, consider inviting others to share the goal and be part of the venture.  Protect your interests from becoming shark bait by offering other, like-minded people of your choosing to participate and share in the rewards.

Think Beyond the Achievement of the Goal

To consider achievement of the goal as the end would be a mistake.  You also have to anticipate what might happen in the event of a huge success.  What then?  How will you manage it? What more will you need? How will it change you? How will it change your company?

Know When to Cut the Line

There is of course a point of no return on just about everything. In the case of Santiago in the original story, going further and further out to sea after he had caught the fish ensured that by the time he made it back to shore, there would be nothing left of it.  In business we also have to know when to stop.


The bottom line is that striking out to explore new territory is an essential part of leadership.  However, the success of such exploration and the achievement of goals rely on one’s ability to marry leadership skill with management ability. Perhaps if Santiago had understood this, the outcome of his story might have been more positive.

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


Filed under Establishing Direction, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Vision

Leadership and Encouraging Dreams

This post, from 2010 reminds me just how important dreams can be in building something concrete…and just how much work it takes to convert them to reality.


When I first sat down to write today, I didn’t really know what I was going to write about but my mind kept drifting off toward Homer Hickam Jr. and the power of dreams.  So I guess I’m meant to write about that.

Homer Hickam is the main subject of a movie entitled October Sky, which in turn was based on Homer’s memoir Rocket Boys. Basically, it’s about his life growing up in a small mining town in West Virginia and his dreams about, and devotion to, rocketry.

It was a time when the notion of space flight was a fanciful one, especially for those who made their living in a coal mine.   In spite of that, the impact of hearing and reading about Sputnik, the first artificial satellite launched into space, was enough to inform Homer, from somewhere deep within him, that he had found his purpose.

Homer Hickam is a lucky guy.  I say that because I rather think many of us flounder around a bit when it comes to being really sure of our purpose.  And, I suspect that unlike Homer, our purpose does not present itself in such a blindingly obvious way.  Well, at least that’s the way it is for me.

But dreams are important.  They’re important because they have a way of leading us to our purpose and each dream realized, each purpose fulfilled, makes a difference to a life, to a community, and sometimes to the world.  It was that way with Terry Fox.

Terry Fox had a dream.  He dreamed about a cure for cancer. He believed in his dream so much that he ran over three thousand miles on an artificial leg to raise funds for cancer research.

Even though Terry didn’t finish his run, he fulfilled his purpose and his dream lives on, long after his death.  That’s what dreams can do…outlive us.  There’s something quite wondrous about that.

Some might think that dreaming has little to do with reality, but dreams become reality if we do the work. And, I think there are two conditions that make the conversion of dream to reality possible:

One is, we have to want it badly enough to do what it takes to make it real

The Road to fulfillment is always fraught with challenge. If a dream is worth it, it is also worth fighting for. Other people may get in the way.  Fear can put us in our own way but, if we want it badly enough, none of that matters in the end.

And secondly, we have to make sure that the dream is really ours and not something, someone else wants for us.

Sometimes, when we are trying to figure out our purpose or find a dream we can make our own, we can slip into someone else’s view of what it looks like.  This can be a convenient way of getting on with our lives.  Someone else’s dream though, no matter how magnificent it might be, is often like a suit of clothes that doesn’t quite fit and isn’t as comfortable as we’d like, no matter how good it might look on us.

Leadership is about dreaming too.  After all, if leadership were about maintaining the status quo, we wouldn’t need it.  We’d only need management. So dreams are frequently the beginning of new adventures and are about the pursuit of something that calls to us from within and makes us want to change, or be, something else or something more.

Dreams help us define our purpose. At least that’s how it was for Homer Hickam Jr. and Terry Fox. What do you think?

Leave a comment

Filed under Employee engagement, Establishing Direction, Leadership, Leadership Vision, Leading Change

Getting Back to Work ~ What Motivates Us

For me, the end of summer brings on mixed feelings.   At the end of last summer, I wrote this post. For me, it bears repeating.  I hope you will agree.


I hate to say it…but I will.  Summer is coming to a close.  It feels a little sad saying adios to the hazy, crazy, sometimes lazy days of summer.  And yet, to me, there is always a ‘new start’ feeling about September.  I guess it must be that, for most people, summer vacation is over and it’s time to get back to work.

Some of us will approach this prospect with enthusiasm and some, well, some will spend time singing the back to work blues.

As a leader, it is reasonable to assume that you would prefer the enthusiasm option to the blues option.  But, like everything else, you’ll likely have to work for it.

So here’s a reminder from Daniel Pink about what truly motivates people to do their best work, (post vacation or otherwise) and it has nothing to do with money.   In fact, according to Pink, (and intuitively, I agree) there are three things that, in combination, will charge our batteries and get us happily moving forward.  Here they are:

Autonomy ~ freedom to, independently or with others of our choosing, work creatively and produce something we can be proud of.

Mastery ~ opportunities to learn, grow and build on our interests, knowledge and abilities

Purpose ~ Connecting to something greater than ourselves that we can believe in and strive to fulfill.

Here is a wonderful RSA Animate production called Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.  It is ten minutes long but, for any leader, is worth the time to see because it gets to the heart of what motivates us.

This presentation suggests to me that to keep the effects of lethargy (whenever it may arise) from diminishing our activity and blurring our focus, we must find ways to emphasize or integrate the principles of autonomy, mastery and purpose into our everyday work life.

With this in mind, here are some questions for you, as leader, to consider:


Given the nature of your business, how might you provide opportunity for people to work autonomously?

How flexible are you when it comes to work arrangements?

What would happen if you were to make each person’s operational framework larger and allow more independence? What might it look like?

What would you need to make it work?  What would you have to do to fill that need?  What would others have to do?

Mastery: What opportunities do you provide for people to get better at what they do?

How do you approach development planning?

How do you acknowledge accomplishment?

What value do you place on curiosity, risk and learning?

What are you willing to try, to allow your people a chance for growth and greater contribution?

If you were to take what you are doing now to increase peoples’ level of mastery and multiply it by two, what would it look like? What do you anticipate would be the outcome?

Purpose: What purpose does your organization serve?

Does everyone in your organization know it? Understand it? Believe in it?

How often do you remind people of your organizational purpose?

How do you help them make the connection between what they do and how they contribute to the fulfillment of the purpose?


There will of course be other questions that come up for you but the point is, there are times when this notion of achieving a working environment that values autonomy, mastery and purpose requires some active consideration.

I just happen to think that the autumn, (when we tend to need time to cast fresh eyes on our life and work), is one of those times.

What do you think?


Filed under Employee engagement, Establishing Direction, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leading Teams, motivating & Inspiring, Uncategorized

Creating Boundaries For Growth & Success

In life and work, there are many boundaries.  For example, there are personal ones; interpersonal ones and systemic ones, just to name a few.  And then there are organizational boundaries.  These are the ones that intrigue me most because they are the most difficult to manage and yet can be just the thing that makes growth and success possible.

The trouble with organizational boundaries though, is that so often they are defined by rules and procedures that have a tendency to limit creative ability and collaborative effort.  That can be very stifling for both the organization and most certainly for the people who work in it.  In my mind, boundaries built on rules and procedures alone make an organization look a bit like this:

It has a rather claustrophobic feeling about it, doesn’t it? And, its walls are solid and unbending.  In an atmosphere like this, I can imagine how hard it must be to engage people in creative thinking, (and doing), because really, there seems to be no way out of the ‘boundary box’.  In this scenario, boundaries create a static space with little room for fresh ideas or growth.

But, let’s not get carried away.  Boundaries are a necessary part of every organization.  Without them, we invite chaos, distraction, and confusion with everyone running around doing their own thing and nothing meaningful being accomplished.

The thing is, boundaries don’t have to limit our ability to put our heads together and come up with ideas and activities that bring the workplace alive and produce something meaningful and fulfilling.

In fact, if expressed differently they can serve the creative process amazingly well.  Here’s what it might look like:

You may notice that the Legal and Ethical boundary appears at the bottom of both images.  There’s no getting away from that one.  It is in no way flexible and serves as the foundation for any reputable organization’s dealings.

The vision and purpose of the organization provides the uppermost boundary.  This speaks to the importance of creating, conveying and instilling a clear sense of purpose and future throughout the workforce. This is not simply about hanging framed vision statements on the wall.  It is something that acts as a guide to decision makers and leaders throughout the company regardless of their position or title.  It invites the question, “Does what we are about to do serve our organizational purpose and move us closer to realizing our ultimate goal?”

The boundaries on either side of the model are created by the Values the organization and its people espouse.  Values express our intentional behaviour and the qualities we hold as critical to the company and what it stands for. It also invites the question, “ Does what we are planning to do honour our values? If it doesn’t, what must we do differently to ensure alignment?”

Finally, the Creative space here is not so much restricted by hard and fast rules but guided by a set of principles that makes sense to everyone. They are open to challenge. They respond to changing times and situations. And that makes the creative space alive and dynamic.

Of course, if there were a downside to this kind of boundary making, it would be the greyness of its nature.  Rules are black and white, right or wrong… vision, purpose and values…not so much. These can be open to interpretation from one person to the next.  As such, they require ongoing attention, management and leadership.  Their messages must be constantly referenced and reinforced.  And too, there must be a strong belief in the will and capability of people to see themselves in the organizational vision, working with others to fulfill its purpose and aligning themselves with the values it embraces.

For the leader, it is not easy work…not at all.  To me, though, it is work worth pursuing because, done well, it increases the potential of companies to successfully build something that everyone involved can feel proud of.

What do you think?


Filed under Employee engagement, Establishing Direction, Leadership, Leadership Values, Leadership Vision, Management

Leadership and Innovation

Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower

It made me think that success in any endeavour today depends on our ability to create new things, embrace new ideas, experiment, risk… and change.   Without this, business, large and small, loses its competitive edge and customers drift away, looking for the next best thing.

Other organizations find themselves in the shallow end of a small and crowded funding pool, struggling to raise enough profile to fulfill their purpose.

There is a huge role for leadership in creating and living a culture that values innovation.  In this culture, innovation becomes everybody’s job, with all brains engaged in the pursuit of what now and what’s next.

So, the question is, what must be present and  valued in an organization in order to create this innovative culture?

Well, probably lots of things but this is what comes to mind first for me:

Diversity ~ in every way that one human being is different from another.

While our natural tendency is to gravitate towards those who are like us, innovation lies most often in unexplored places and with people who vary in thought, background, experience, gender, age, ethnicity and skill.  The wider the net is cast, the greater the opportunity for innovation.

Relentless Change ~ as an accepted norm.

Those who embrace innovation, also embrace change.  They expect it.  They create it. They even demand it.  Innovation and change are inextricably linked.  As the song goes, “ you can’t have one without the other

Open communication ~ at all levels

Innovation requires us to listen deeply, speak candidly, question constantly, challenge openly, and get a little messy in the process.  In other words, an organization that values innovation will be light on bureaucracy and heavy on curiosity and transparency.

Failure ~ as a learning tool

In order to break through the barriers of sameness and routine, we have to experiment and risk failure.  Failure happens. In an innovative environment it is also expected because with each defeat we get closer to learning about what it will take to succeed.

There are, of course some structural considerations in the development of an innovative organization.  For instance, if you expect people to be at their most creative it’s probably not a good idea to put them in an office structure that includes a maze of Dilbert style cubicles.  Creativity has its own demands and so flexibility in the way people work, and when, is often a more appropriate and productive choice.

There are other possible structures too, ones designed to capture and process ideas as they are born and ones that reward both successes and failures.

To me, though, however we go about it, the goal for the leader is to make it possible for as many people as possible to contribute their most creative thoughts and abilities to the business, whatever that business might be.

And, speaking of creative, in my Internet meanderings, I came across one Jeremy Gutsche, a Canadian innovation expert and chief “Trend Spotter” at  Jeremy  maintains that our current precarious economic climate presents much opportunity for innovation. Here, in a keynote presentation, he has some really interesting ideas to share about innovation and culture.  It is thirty minutes long but well worth the time.

So, what would you add to the list of must have values or structures for an innovative culture to thrive?  How do you encourage innovation in your organization?


Filed under Employee engagement, Establishing Direction, Leadership, Leadership Values, Leading Change, Organizational Effectiveness, Uncategorized

Guiding Rookies ~ Three Steps To Doing It Well

As the new leaves of spring start to unfurl and all that buds begins to blossom, I’m reminded of what it is to be new and fresh…. and green… as a rookie in the workplace.

On the one hand as rookies, we come to our new situations with a certain wide-eyed anticipation, enthusiasm and excitement that, if bottled, could provide the elixir of hope to many a world-weary veteran.  On the other hand, if we are to maintain our enthusiasm, stand tall and grow, we need some help along the way.

Recently, we held an election in this country.  For one party, the results were quite surprising with whole communities voting out the Tried and True, (or otherwise, depending on your perspective), and voting in a number of very inexperienced people who will now represent them in parliament over the next four years.

Among this very green group are:  a horticulturist (pardon the pun), a jewelry maker, a number of university students (one of whom is only nineteen years old) and a young woman who was, prior to being elected, an assistant manager in a university campus pub. Go figure.

Given their disparate occupations and limited exposure to the real world of politics, it occurs to me that these folks will need plenty of help along the way.  And, the usual orientation program that tends to stop when the rules and policies have been conveyed (and the path to the washroom and other facilities clarified) is not going to cut it.

So what will?

How might this leader ensure that a gardener, jewelry maker, student and publican have the best chance of becoming  functional, contributing, and successful in their newly elected roles?

Well, not being a parliamentarian or even a politician for that matter, I may be unqualified to comment. But, what the heck, I’ll give it shot and see what happens.  After all, it can’t be that much different from introducing new employees into other kinds of organizations can it?

In fact, there are three steps that come to mind for me and here they are:

Step #I ~ Help Them Connect…

  • To the Organizational Purpose: People new to any organization will feel a greater sense of belonging when they understand and believe in its purpose.   Understanding purpose goes much deeper than the vision statement hanging the wall that no one seems to be able to remember.  It strives to include people and help them see themselves as part of its fulfillment.
  • To the Values on which the organization is built: Values provide the boundaries within which people in the organization may make decisions; take considered risks; and build strong relationships both inside and outside the firm.  Boundaries constructed of values serve as the organizational conscience.
  • To Internal and External Networks:  Give new recruits exposure to those who are more established and experienced; people who can help them create and build their own reputation and enhance their ability to serve their constituents.

Step #II ~ Help Them Learn…

  • Through Skill Building:  This starts with the work of determining and acknowledging what each person brings to the new job in the way of transferrable skills; identifying what they need; and making specific plans for both maximizing on existing skill and building new skill.
  • Through Mentoring: Help each of them find someone else in the organization to whom they can go for informal and confidential advice and guidance; a person with experience and knowledge; and one who is open to sharing it.
  • Through Coaching & Monitoring:  Get to know them well enough to be able to see what they are capable of (even when they don’t see it). Encourage them. Champion them.  Ask for more.  Hold them accountable for delivering on the promises they make to themselves and others.  And, monitor their progress against the goals you have set together.

Step #III ~ Help Them Flourish

  • By knowing when to let go:  There just comes a time when the period of orientation ends; the mechanisms for building solid relationships and monitoring performance are in place and the cluster of new buds are ready to blossom.  To do this well, they need air.  Trust that you have done your job well and give them space to prove you right.
  • By Using Mistakes as learning opportunities not weapons:  People, whether seasoned Veterans or Newbies, do not respond well in environments of blame.  Failure happens.  You can make it useful by keeping blame out of the equation.

Of course when it comes to being a new Member of Parliament, I expect there is a whole raft of procedure and protocol that these newly minted MPs will have to learn.  But, the steps I’ve outlined above seem, (to me anyway), to fit, no matter where they might be applied, in government or in a small business, because in the end, it’s about understanding human nature and building support mechanisms that work for people.  What do you think?  What have I left out?


Filed under Building Relationships, Employee engagement, Establishing Direction, Leadership, Leadership Values, Leading Change, mentoring, organizational Development, Organizational Effectiveness