In grade school, we learned that the earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun, and that the whole galaxy is in motion. Organizations in today’s world are just as dynamic: our companies are changing — and hopefully growing — as employees come and go, customer trends take new turns, competitors enter and leave the marketplace, big contracts are gained or lost, a problematic employee throws a wrench in our best-laid plans, or a regulatory change sends us reeling. Any or all of these moments can create pressure for a leader and her team.
Should we do this or that? Now, later, or never?
With so many moving parts in a business, what’s a conscious leader to do when faced with a tough decision? My answer, based on decades of consulting with CEOs, is to do whatever you can to regain a sense of perspective. Losing perspective on your purpose and values is one of the main reasons we find ourselves in trouble as organizations.
One leader’s struggle to keep perspective
Before I explain more about what regaining perspective entails, let me tell you a story. Some years ago, Alex, the smart CEO of an ad agency, realized that if his company was going to remain on the cutting edge he would need to expand the team to include a big talent in the interactive media world. Shortly before I began working with the firm he had therefore hired Marilyn from a London agency. She was known to be savvy and good at putting together talented teams.
The day of my first planning session with the company was my first opportunity to meet Marilyn. I was a bit concerned by her apparent disdain for the planning process and even for her colleagues in the room. But I chalked her attitude up to being new and uncertain. As we moved into the year, Marilyn began assembling her team — stars from other companies who brought knowledge of the latest and greatest technologies. Given the importance of her department, she was part of the leadership team and a presenter at client conferences. Yet she continued to appear disdainful of the rest of the leadership team and talked about the firm’s clients as if they were idiots.
The more I saw and heard — folded arms and rolling eyes, phrases like “Stupid people should be killed at birth” — the more concerned I became. It was time to talk to the CEO. What was he seeing, how did he think it was going?
“She can be difficult I know, but she’s recruiting a group of amazing technical people, and we simply can’t get where we need to go without her and without them,” he explained.
Nodding sympathetically, I withdrew my concern. (I wasn’t as bold then as I am now!) As time passed, Marilyn’s team became more isolated from the rest of the company, and she continued to be a toxic force on the leadership team — the evil witch in Snow White’s kingdom.
Then one day during the leadership meeting, Marilyn became vicious. I no longer remember the topic, but she crossed a line. Meeting privately with the Alex, I challenged him. “When we started working together, you wanted to make certain I understood your company’s purpose: empowering employees, your clients, and their clients to succeed beyond their individual capabilities. Is that still true?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered.
“And one of your values was about having a team-oriented culture. Does that still guide your actions?”
“Well, yes,” he stammered, beginning to suspect where this was going.
“If that’s still true, help me understand why you tolerate Marilyn’s behavior. How do you see it aligning with your purpose and your values?”
He shrugged his shoulders, and took a deep breath. “I guess I was afraid we wouldn’t be competitive if we didn’t have someone with Marilyn’s expertise. I thought we were lucky to get her, so I’ve put up with her tirades. Frankly, I think I just lost perspective on what was really important.”
We talked about how the best people in the organization were focused on the whole team, across all departments. It’s what gave his clients the great experiences the firm was known for, and Marilyn’s behavior and attitude could destroy that. And her ridicule made people afraid to take risks. “It’s frightening to think of damage she may already have caused!” he said.
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. Having regained his perspective about what was really important to him and his company, Alex parted ways with Marilyn and restructured the department. A year later he confessed that he was having more fun and feeling deeply satisfied by the work he and his team were doing. Oh, and the business was more profitable, too.
Why do we lose perspective and how can we avoid it?
Alex’s situation is unfortunately a common one, though it takes different forms. What can seem like a good thing for the company turns out to be a black hole for attention, focus, or goodwill, tearing our vision away from the big picture. I’ve found that the number one reason we lose perspective is that we are afraid. Of what? You name it. Alex was afraid of not having an “it” team for the interactive media world. He lost perspective in the face of this fear.
Luckily, there’s an antidote to this leadership challenge, one that’s especially suited to mission-driven businesses. The most powerful elixir we have in the business world today is continuing to ask ourselves whether our actions are congruent with our purpose and values. Getting off track? Return to those foundational elements again and again. I’m not referring here to apple-pie values. I am not even referring to integrity, quality, and lip-service values. The values I’m referring to describe behavior. Values are how your best people act.
How to practice regular values checks
We don’t always have a third party to bring our loss of perspective to our attention, so it’s important that we cultivate the habit of practicing regular values perspective checks. Every so often, or when faced with a thorny problem, take a step back to do the following:
1. Remind yourself what your purpose is.
Why does your company exist? What are you trying to accomplish right now? Does your answer jive with all aspects of your company, not just profitability?
2. Ask yourself what your values are.
Is everything and everyone in the company matching how your best people act? Is the behavior of the company integrated with your purpose?
3. Prepare to act.
If not, then ask yourself, “Am I willing to take a financial hit or part ways with an employee who doesn’t live our values?” Your answer will tell you what you need to do next.