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The Balance of Strategic Thinking – Part IV: Strategy and People

Many executive-level leaders laugh at working toward getting in touch with the people-side of their business. They usually feel they have better things to do. Yet, these same leaders struggle with very similar types of people questions, such as: “Why is our turnover so high?” “Why don’t people just do what we need them to do?” “What’s their problem?!” Sometimes these leadership frustrations come out as a simple statement instead of as a question. In moments of desperation, more than one executive has said to me over time: “…if we just didn’t have to work with people!”

If you catch yourself struggling to understand some of the people within your company, then you might want to think about an elusive concept that many of your executive-level peers might find laughable: Beliefs.

Beliefs are based on our perceptions of the world around us. They are, to each of us, very real. They give us the confidence we need to take certain actions and to make the decisions we make. They help us make sense of the world around us.

In addition, beliefs are very powerful forces.

In fact, what people believe is probably the most powerful force within your company. If it’s a powerful force, then it’s worth your time and energy to pay attention to it. If it has an impact on top-line and/or bottom-line performance, then it is (once again) worth your time and energy.

“Belief” is a powerful force because people will act on what they believe. It’s true at a very human level, and it doesn’t go away just because people walk through the front door of your organization almost every day of the week. As much as you might like them to, your people don’t ‘check their brains and their lives’ at the door upon entry. In fact, how they ‘see’ themselves within the realm of their work is of paramount importance to you as an executive-level leader. If they see themselves as a mere means to an end, you’ll get status-quo performance. If they see themselves as valued assets, you’re more likely to get a ROI on your employment investment.

But leaders rarely challenge their own assumptions about the kind of organizational culture they’re creating. Many executive teams don’t talk much about their corporate cultures, or how people see themselves, or what their people think it’s like to work there, or why they don’t seem engaged and energized. Most organizations also don’t question how key leaders within their companies are leading.

I think it’s safe to say that most leaders want results. Sometimes, however, getting those results is like pulling teeth! But for those executives who don’t laugh at the notion of talking about creating high performance cultures, the results are getting easier and easier to obtain. What these executives realize, however, is that if you want a ‘culture transformation’ within your organization, you have to first have a ‘people-transformation.’ Your people are currently acting on what they believe to be true about working for your company. This brave but worthy business transformation journey begins with a few serious questions (and get ready to maybe hear a few snickers of laughter from some members of your leadership team):

  • Who have we become as an organization? Let’s talk about that.
  • Do we even like who we’ve become?
  • More importantly, do our people like who we’ve become? (How do we know?)
  • To what degree are we a community? (How do we know?)
  • What is our definition of ‘leadership?’ Why does it even matter? Is that definition getting us the results we say we want to get?
  • What do each of us believe about leadership? (This requires a deep-seeded ability to think very introspectively. To use a common analogy: “The baby might be ugly.” Translation: You might not be the great and wonderful leader you think you are.)

I’m convinced that many executives don’t have discussions around concepts such as ‘beliefs’ because they don’t see the bottom-line value of doing so. But for companies such as SAS, Google, Zappos, and a handful of other tech starts-ups, leading this way and asking questions around corporate identity are the norm.

So why don’t more executives pay attention to beliefs? The answer: Because it’s foreign territory (first of all), and secondly because it’s hard work. Turning a culture around is hard work…and there are usually casualties (i.e., company leaders that simply can’t buy-in to the new way of working and leading.) It’s a tough road, but what are the consequences if you don’t consider what people believe about working for you? How on earth can you get the results you say you want to get if you don’t have the culture that will help you get those results? It’s insanity second to none.

  • Start the journey by having a conversation with yourself. Simply make a commitment to think about beliefs…and the power they bestow on those that work for you.
  • Then think a bit further about the incredible bottom-line results companies who have braved this journey are getting.
  • Then formally begin the journey in every strategy meeting you have by talking about the “what’s” (goals, strategies, action plans, metrics) and also talk about the “how’s.”
  • Create a set of really good questions to talk about from a strategic perspective, such as:  Do we have the cultural strategy to get the results we say we want to get? What do we need to do more of? Less of? Differently? What beliefs do we have about leadership–and how are those beliefs getting in our way? What do our people believe it’s like to work here? How do they describe our culture?

Turning around a culture takes time; it isn’t an ‘event.’ This is because rewiring old-school beliefs about what’s relevant to the bottom-line isn’t a transactional endeavor. It’s a transformational endeavor. Simply begin to incorporate these types of discussions into your corporate journey. In time, you’ll celebrate the memory of “how we used to do it” while you’re watching business performance exceed your every expectation.

And who’ll be laughing then?

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