Myths, legends and stories - symbolsImagine this; you’ve left your hotel early in order to catch a flight to another city. At 30,000 feet you realize that you’ve left your portfolio containing the critical paperwork for the day’s most important meeting in the hotel lobby. You phone the hotel upon landing in a mad panic, only to find out that the concierge is already on a flight behind you. Ten minutes before your big meeting starts, in walks the concierge with your portfolio and a smile.

This is a great example of the power of myths, legends and stories – another type of symbol that can be leveraged to accelerate your organization toward its aspirations. Myths, legends and stories provide explanations for actions and a tool for resolving contradictions and dilemmas in the absence of formal policies.

The above story gained mythological status in one of the world’s largest hotel groups, as employees learned how a colleague had creatively and proactively employed his $2000 customer service allowance to solve a guest issue. No manager had ever pre-empted this situation, nor was there any policy to govern how to behave; the culture of “doing whatever it takes for the guest” took over.

A simple story can communicate so much about what you stand for, and the story of the concierge and the portfolio was purposefully shared in induction and training sessions around the world to exemplify the attitude the group sought to engender in every one of their employees. Going the extra mile was hard-wired into the thinking of staff, and all were expected to live the value of exceptional guest service.

Symbols - rules, policies and proceduresAs I shared previously in my blog on systems, the degree of bureaucracy people experience in their day to day work can either enable or inhibit them in delivering business results, and has a significant impact on their engagement at work. This week we are looking at another category of symbols, that of policies, rules and procedures. These are the systemic manifestations of how the organisation translates ‘importance’ into action.

In one company, sales people were required to itemise each expenditure within their daily travel allowance, sticking within per-meal maximum amounts and documenting each receipt. The associated administration was consuming more than 90 minutes per week for each sales person, causing frustration and keeping them away from their customers.

After thinking about not just the practical but symbolic cost of this policy, the executive team decided on a simple but profound rule change. They shifted to a simple fixed budget per day, to be spent at the discretion of the sales person.

As you will appreciate, this simple change was incredibly well received by the sales force; it removed huge amounts of wasted time but even more importantly, sent a clear symbol that they were trusted. As it turns out, they weren’t the only ones who benefitted. Unbeknown to the executive team, the finance team spent some 50 hours per week scrutinising receipts to ensure the rules were being followed.

In high trust environments policies, rules and procedures are minimised. Standards and behaviors become more important than rules and regulations as leaders find ways to kill dumb rules and empower staff.

Symbols - money, time and resources“Put your money where your mouth is” is a common expression, meaning to show by your actions – not just your words – that you believe in something. Through the allocation of time, money and resources, leaders most clearly indicate what is important to them.

One new CEO inherited an organization where communication was infrequent, one-way and very formal.  She chose to invest her time in regular face to face staff communications to practically and symbolically role-model the transparency she wished to create in the business. She initiated quarterly ‘town hall’ meetings to which all staff were invited, requiring time away from their jobs. Her commitment demonstrated her belief that openness and transparency with staff would lead to better business outcomes; she ‘put her money where her mouth is’ and her people noticed.

Her willingness to engage in dialogue, about even the most sensitive topics, demonstrated the behaviour she was looking for in a way that her people had never experienced. Ultimately, these sessions increased trust and accountability across the company, and became a powerful and authentic way for leaders to connect, communicate and align everybody to their shared goals.

Aligning your time, money and resources to your articulated goals will accelerate you towards them because it provides evidence of your integrity; people quickly realise that you say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Symbols ImageSymbols tell us what’s really important in an organization. One leader I knew dictated a spending freeze in every fourth quarter in order to make the numbers, but continued to fly around in the company jet – often for personal reasons. This sent a very strong symbol to his employees that executive privilege trumped delivering on financial commitments. Not surprisingly, this organization continually struggled to hit its numbers and the CEO was eventually fired.

In a contrasting example, the 6 foot 7 inch CEO of a multinational IT company sent a very different symbol to employees when he chose to fly economy on a budget airline.  Not only did this CEO sacrifice his own comfort for the benefit of the organisation, he also sent a very clear message that he was on the journey with his employees.

Symbols are largely free to implement, but remain grossly underutilized in most organizations. Next to leadership, symbols are the most powerful reference point for individuals in times of crisis and confusion; they help make meaning of situations.

Symbols can be used proactively to establish new rituals consistent with the aspirations; for example, the institution of quarterly staff communication forums can signal a shift toward transparency. Symbols also express the underlying character, ideology, and value system of an organization.

The best leaders consciously leverage the power of symbols to encourage positive change, demonstrate congruence between what they say is important and how they behave, and implement rites, rituals and privileges which reinforce their aspirations.

Symbols fall into six broad categories:

  1. Time, money and resources
  2. Policies, rules and procedures
  3. Myths, legends and stories
  4. Heroes and villains
  5. Rites, rituals and ceremonies
  6. Humour and play

In the coming weeks, I will provide an example of each type of symbol so that you can think about how to use them in pursuit of your organization’s aspirations.

Strengths Image BarbellIt is human nature to look for what’s missing rather than focus on what we have. In our organizations, this tendency is exacerbated by leaders who are often trained to look for exceptions and who must manage a vast array of risks and stakeholder groups. But what if the shorter path to success is to focus on the strengths that will help your organization to win? 

We define organizational strengths as the collective assets and core competencies that can be leveraged towards your aspirations. Aligning strengths to your organizational goals is as much a shift in mindset as it is a program or initiative.  Instead of investing time and money to improve areas where the organization is average, the best companies shift their thinking to what will make them great – their distinctive assets – and how to leverage these further.

We have learned that the best organizations turn to their strengths under pressure, and in times of crisis or renewal. When planning a major transformation of their optical retail business, one client built their strategy around three core strengths; fashion, healthcare, and service.  Twelve months on, they were achieving the same sales revenues from 25% fewer retail outlets around the country, in large part because they returned to what they were best at.

Aligning strengths to the aspirations enables leaders to identify what they should not do, as well as what they should do. In the above example, the leaders could have been tempted to follow their competitors into the high-volume, low margin end of the market.  Sticking to their core strengths avoided what would have been a costly investment of time and money, with no guarantee of success, plus potential damage to their brand.

Strengths can be specific, unique and enduring.  In its 100 year history, a well-loved clothing company had always sold its products through big retailers. In recent times, they recognised that their most iconic brand was underleveraged and decided to launch a new business model in the form of a direct retail network.  The marketing campaign to support the new model built on already phenomenal brand equity to attract people in store.  As a result, their retail network now extends to almost 100 stores locally, and a growing number around the world.

What more could your organization be doing to leverage its strengths right now?

Meaningful CommunicationDespite our best efforts over 75% of people are disengaged or actively disengaged at work. The natural leadership response is to communicate more, when that often just exacerbates the problem. What people are really seeking is context and meaning to navigate the intense challenges of the workplace, not more information, facts and figures.  To truly engage people, we must speak to their emotions; their hopes and dreams, and their fears and worries. 

The simplest way to capture hearts and minds is through sharing stories.  Long before Facebook and Twitter, people communicated through story – think about it as the original social network.  In the best organisations today, leaders have developed an emotionally engaging story that has relevance and meaning to every member in the organisation, from the CEO to the front line. This story becomes their shared truth.  The most memorable stories use metaphor and pictures, rather than facts and figures, to convey meaning.

A story should be simple, but not simplistic. It should be easy to follow and understand, but must walk  the audience through complexity to get there. It should create connections between what the organisation aspires to achieve, the proposed path to get there, and the challenges that need to be overcome along the way.  It is in these layers of story that emotion and engagement are created.

A powerful story rapidly and effectively directs energy into purposeful action.  So tap your people into the original social network.

This content was created in collaboration with Mark Fuda at Seven Stories.

Peter on stage - action shot (Full screen in background)All organizations have values; the challenge is that these values are usually quite different from the ones articulated on the poster. Even Enron articulated the values of communication, respect, excellence and – you guessed it – integrity!

Compounding the challenge, leaders often state “this is our vision and these are our values”. In doing so, they position the values as an aspiration. They might as well say “we hope to have integrity one day.”

Articulating your values is a good start, but if you want to transform your organization, then you need to get clear on your standards. Standards are the non-negotiable, minimum levels of expected behaviour for you and your team members. Integrity is a value. Do what you say you will is a standard.

If your organisation is underperforming to its potential – and most are – you cannot say “we all need to raise our values”, but you can say “we all need to raise our standards.” Your standards should be the key reference point for who and how you hire, fire, promote and reward team members. Living by shared standards is difficult; it is easier to give into immediate pressures and try to please others than to be clear and unapologetic about what you stand for.

In a multinational I worked with, a country President fired his highest financial performer based on a standards decision. Not a breach of ethical guidelines such as fraud, but a consistent unwillingness to behave according to the agreed standards of teamwork and partnership. In a very numbers-driven organization, this one act sent a far greater message to thousands of employees about the importance of the shared standards than any number of posters and communication campaigns. And in case you’re wondering, the organization increased its financial performance in the months after the leader in question was removed.

Aligning to a set of shared standards creates a greater power in your organisation than traditional hierarchy. Team members are empowered to confidently make smart decisions every day. As a result, organisations that live their standards have less need for rules and bureaucracy, and a much higher strike rate of success.

Skills SoccerTraditionally, skill development in organizations is approached as a program of activities designed to increase individual capability. The effort is typically led by HR learning and development professionals, the content is shaped by conducting training needs analysis, with the desired outcome being a measurable improvement in the targeted skills.

This traditional approach addresses the question of how to design and deliver suitable training programs to develop people. It encourages employees to think about what training do I need to complete in order to advance my career? The challenge with this approach is that it is centred on the individual needs rather than the organizational goals; it typically fails to develop and leverage skills to accelerate transformation.

Instead of this old world formula, what if we approached skills as a critical lever in the transformation agenda? This new paradigm would start with senior leaders answering the question what skills does the organization need to achieve our aspirations? The identified skills would be those that underpin performance, and any capability gaps that need to be bridged in order to accelerate to the aspiration.

One HR department was at risk of having their entire training budget cut because their CEO was struggling to identify substantial return on training investment. This catalyzed a re-think of their entire approach to skills development. Starting afresh with their customer value proposition and transformation strategy at the core, senior leaders defined the critical skills required by front line staff and leaders in order to execute effectively. The learning and development team then shaped new offerings to develop these critical skills throughout the organization. Within twelve months of implementing the new approach, there was a positive impact on customer advocacy and financial performance.

Delivery of training also needs to modernize; instead of the reliance on formal and classroom delivery, we now have cutting edge research and technologies that enable rapid learning outcomes. Through neuroscience we now know that the individual capacity to learn and grow far exceeds what we previously believed. The science of habit formation, self-directed learning, brain-based science and performance analysis can all be leveraged to maximize the acquisition of critical skills.

It’s time that senior leaders recognise the leverage that skills can bring to their transformation agenda. Leaders must take an active role in partnership with HR to focus their training investment on the gaps that matter. You then have an organization filled with learners, all accelerating in the same direction towards the aspirations.

Systems in alignmentThere are many types of systems in organizations; these include people and performance systems (e.g. recruitment, performance management), management systems (e.g. financial reporting, customer data), and business systems (e.g. resource demand forecasting).

Not surprisingly, it’s the people and performance systems that influence behaviour in our organizations the most. For example, an organization espousing teamwork but with systems that exclusively reward individual achievement will get competition, not collaboration.

Systems are important transmitters of culture, and many companies have systems that perpetuate bureaucracy, not performance. When we measure the extent to which various factors are enabling or inhibiting an organisation’s aspirations, systems score the lowest of all the traditional business levers. Respondents often cite poor systems as a source of widespread frustration and reduced productivity.

Such gaps present an excellent opportunity for leaders and change agents.  Streamlining systems that cause the most frustration for employees results in systems that serve rather than hinder the aspirations.  One client targeted their laborious travel and expense claims processes, freeing up their sales people’s time to focus on their customers.  These improvements translated into feelings of greater autonomy and personal accountability across the sales teams.

How systems are implemented is critical too. Even the very best systems are useless unless consistently applied by leaders.  One HR team which had developed a world-class performance management system was disappointed with the poor uptake, until they realised their most senior leaders were paying it lip service. Once leaders gave the process the attention it deserved and role modeled excellent implementation, a disciplined approach to performance management became embedded in their DNA.

Resolving the conflict between your aspirations and your systems creates the alignment you need to accelerate and sustain your transformation effort.

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The perfect structure imageIn most organisations, ‘structure’ means the distribution of power and accountability through formal reporting lines. But what would happen if, starting today, the only way you could get work done in your organisation was through the formal hierarchy? Not much, right?

The search for the ‘perfect’ structure is elusive at best, and can be expensive, demoralising and futile at worst.  All structures have inadequacies that must be managed. And while structure may be seen as a rational extension of the aspirations, the most rational structures usually land in a sea of human emotion, self-interest and irrationality.

With the right values and behaviours, almost any structure can work. People work around the formal hierarchy all the time to get things done. For example, if you observe the aftermath of any natural disaster, you will typically see human beings purposefully organising well ahead of any official relief agency response.

The most powerful structures within your organisation are almost certainly informal networks and personal relationships; these are the primary structures that enable information to flow and work to get done.

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