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When is the last time the leaders of your company performed an integrity check on reality? In a discovery session several weeks ago with a client, we opened up a can of honesty on “the truth” and interrogated it to its very core. What we found was revealing, to say the least…

The background…

The story begins with a friend and colleague that is the president and CEO of a medium-sized organization that grew rapidly over the past five years but was now looking to understand where his organization was misfiring. As he communicated to me, “The organization is missing something or something is off somewhere. The number of mistakes we are making in our delivery has risen over the last year and a half, our clients say less and less good things about our support and our revenue has steadily declined quarter over quarter for the past six quarters”. “I have questioned my team several times and I either get a surface level answer or no answer at all and I can’t pinpoint the root of the problem”. “This isn’t seasonality and it’s not something or someone disrupting our market so I can’t decide if this is a scale problem with the number of people or we are having or a mechanics problem and our processes are just messed up.”

After further discussion, we landed on an approach to further investigate the problem. I would go conduct three days of 30-minute interviews with 36 key people out of a population of 172 employees. In addition, I would interview his direct five-person management team. I would ask them for their candid and honest thoughts about their perceptions of the organization. I would then bring those back for us to layout and discuss any relevant patterns or correlations that we thought might have merit. We decided on five questions to help us obtain some clarity.

1. What is the biggest challenge the organization faces right now and not being talked about from your perspective?
2. Why is this challenge happening in your opinion?
3. If the organization doesn’t solve this challenge, what do you believe will occur?
4. How would the organization need to behave to solve this?
5. How are they behaving now?

After a fairly lengthy but healthy discussion, we also decided that he would send an email out to the 36 people who I was to conduct the interviews with over the next 3 days in addition to his management team. The email was to explain what he was doing, why he was doing it, why it was important, what was at stake and asked for their honest and candid answers. He initially wanted the discussion to appear as a spur of the moment ask to the employees in the hope to provoke honesty. I respectfully let him know that if we wanted to provoke honesty from the group, the better strategy would be to express his own honesty so that the environment that is created creates a stage for the display of courage rather than fear. Fortunately, he sided with me and sent the email. This would prove telling later in our engagement.

The interrogation of reality…

After the three days of interviewing, I compiled the answers on sticky notes for us to look at and segment easier for evaluation and correlation. We took each of the answers that his team and the employees gave and grouped the similar responses together for each question.

The first question revealed 4 groups of challenges: Delivery for clients/Client satisfaction, Revenue decline, Lower profits, Leadership

The second question as to why this challenge was occurring revealed 4 groups: Leadership, Not enough people, Busy putting out client fires, Lack of Teamwork/Can’t work as a team

The third question as to what do you believe will happen if the challenge is not solved revealed 3 groups: Lose clients, Lose revenue, Lose jobs

The fourth question as to how the organization would need to behave to change this revealed 3 groups: Lose the ego, Act like leaders/Leadership, Act as a team

The fifth question as to how the organization was behaving now revealed 3 groups: Political, Selfish and Don’t care.

It became really obvious, really quick there was a much bigger problem to solve than that of declining revenue, mistakes made and client approval ratings – this was a clear leadership behavior problem. I asked him to think about overnight and we would talk the next morning.

The next morning at 9 am, we got on a call to discuss his thoughts towards the previous day discoveries. He was very thoughtful in his response to which he addressed – “While I’m disappointed to hear from the feedback, it is clear that we have a behavior problem and I haven’t addressed it. I thought…. Correction, I wanted to think the disagreements on the management team were just that, disagreements and not something of a political nature. Clearly, they are not acting as a team and that is frustrating to me not to mention the damage I now realize it’s causing for our employees. They probably are not being told the same thing by my team and it’s most likely causing confusion and everyone is just running to cover their ass. In some way, I think I knew this but either didn’t want to hear it, ask about it or deal with it. This clearly starts with me.”

I let him know that his evaluation of the situation was the same as mine. Until he drives his management team to learn to be a cohesive team and trust each other, hold each other accountable and behave like a healthy team and then, display, demonstrate and manage this between their respective teams; the poor results and bloodshed among the employees would most likely worsen leading to many other critical failures of the organization’s culture and further exasperating his client’s perceptions and challenges. This would ultimately lead to an accelerated loss of revenue and profits.

The next day, I stopped by the local Walmart and bought a plastic sand pale with a small bag of playground sand and then met him for lunch to discuss the strategy to resolve the problem he already knew about.  When I arrived at the restaurant carrying the bright red plastic pale half full of sand, he asked what is that for, are you taking home leftovers?  I paused ever so slightly before telling him.. Nope, this is for you the next time you want to bury your head in the sand about what is really going on in your company.  He fell out of his chair with laughter…

The conclusion…

What are you pretending not to know in your business? What are you putting on the proverbial list of non-discussible items and not dealing with? These are the most important things to be discussing in a business – not most of the time – ALL the time!  Witnessed over and over again, I often see behavioral problems that continue to exist in an organization because the behavior itself while very apparent to all, is never discussed or much less addressed. When this behavior exists at the top, it acts like a vicious cancer that drives misalignment, confusion and political behavior. This is typically expressed through demonstrations of bureaucracy, blame, power, greed, and self-interest. When leaders engage in this type of behavior, it becomes learned and modeled through other leaders, managers, and employees in the organization leaving a destructive wake in the organization’s culture and ultimately leading to cultural entropy.

The time, resources, capital and energy to turn this around is astronomical. When the strategy of a business is at odds with its culture, it is doomed – period. There is a reason why people say that culture eats strategy for breakfast – because it does.

In every aspect, every day and every communication regardless of type, leaders are being looked at and evaluated for alignment, trust, and commitment toward one another. As their behavior goes so does the rest of the organization and its culture.

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