I had the privilege of attending a client holiday party last week that didn’t turn out as I expected. Like most office parties, there was the usual coterie of festive revelers who made a few too many trips to the punch bowl. But no one got so out of control that they reenacted the iconic party scene from Seinfeld where Elaine breaks into a dance that makes you wonder if what you’re witnessing is really a seizure instead. On the whole it was fun, and it was a fairly laid back event, except for the group of leaders I was sitting with. They were gathered around a good bottle of cabernet and engaged in deep discussion about the company’s future. Two glasses in, the conversation shifted to an open acknowledgment of the personal changes that each leader felt he or she needed to commit to in the New Year. As I listened, I marveled at their candor, and reflected on how their individual improvements could make a huge difference for the company and its culture. This was a remarkably self-aware group, which was also incredibly ambitious, as each person rattled off numerous ways they could improve as leaders. Realistically though, most of us are only able to work on one or two things about ourselves at a time, so I challenged the group to narrow down their list of leadership resolutions to five changes they could collectively make that would shift their company from success to significance. Here’s where they landed:
Almost every leader agreed that the pace of the business was so swift that they rarely took time to reflect on the impact that the decisions made by the organization had on the company’s long-term objectives. For the most part, their teams focused on actively addressing more immediate problems, without considering how their solutions might position them to respond to future opportunities. “Reflection time with my team would allow me to better educate everyone about the various directions our business could take,” said one leader. “I want to make sure that we are not busy solving the wrong problem, really well. There’s no doubt that we might have fires to put out today, but we should be able to do that without hosing down tomorrow.”
“We have at least three different award programs in place to celebrate employees who successfully lead key projects,” one IT leader shared. “We make a very big deal of it when people achieve an important objective, but we have no process in place to recognize the contributions of those employees who are real thought leaders in the organization.” The group agreed that many of their most important initiatives would have failed miserably or never gotten off the ground in the first place, had it not been for some gifted thinkers playing a behind-the-scenes role on the team. These were the individuals who challenged the team to think beyond the obvious and who were willing to push for the better solution, not just the expedient one. The leaders agreed that failing to acknowledge the input from such employees increased the risk that they might lose the critical talent their company depended on.
There is a narrative that runs through the culture of every organization that I’ve ever worked with, and shaping that narrative is one of the most important roles a leader plays. But all too often, messages get diluted or transmuted when the responsibility for shaping the company story is delegated to others. “This past year we implemented a major change in the strategic development of one of our products,” shared the marketing leader who was seated to my left. “I created talking points for my vice presidents and asked each of them to hold meetings with their respective teams to get the word out about why we’d made the changes. To my surprise, that set off a groundswell of chatter in the organization about how we were deviating from the product line that had made our company great. Folks thought we were somehow not living up to the promise of our brand. In retrospect, I realized that employees needed to hear that message from me — directly, consistently and often. I was the one on the team who could best shape the narrative of our organization. So, now I’m not just the president of the marketing division, I’m the “Chief Story Teller in Charge.””
The woman seated to my right was the head of sales for the company. She’d been listening to the conversation attentively, but occasionally seemed distracted by some folks who were standing across the room at the buffet table. After staring at them for a few minutes, she put down her glass and looked at the rest of us as if she’d just trumped Einstein on the Theory of Relativity. “Look at that group of employees over there,” she said motioning to the people she’d been watching. “They are the top sales people in the nation. Every one of them has achieved results that are 2-3 times their goal. Yet, aside from that, they are all very different people. I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out what it is that they all have in common and how we can search for that elusive X factor when we hire new people. I’ve just realized that every single one of them is someone that I know to be a passionate human being. They believe in themselves, they know themselves, and they show up as authentic individuals. They also believe in this company and our products, and they are adamant about serving our customers. I think that one of our resolutions should be about passion. We need to screen for it relentlessly and hire passionate people, because in our business, skill alone just isn’t enough.”
Like many other companies in their industry, this client was investing significantly in developing their new hires. They’d recently implemented an impressive management development program so they could grow talent from within, and they established a new requirement that each employee identify and take action on two personal development objectives each year. Of all of the leaders at the table, I thought that the head of HR would be the most pleased with her department’s accomplishments that year, but she surprised me by saying, “We have a very long way to go!” I suppose it was the quizzical look on my face that prompted her to clarify her statement. “I’ve been with this company for 8 years and I’ve seen it through a few business cycles,” she explained. “I’ve come to the conclusion that in our early lean years, we made a big mistake by slashing training budgets when the money got tight. As a result, we are now running hard and fast to make up lost ground in the battle for talent. There is no way that we can just hire all of the talent this company needs. We need to develop people from within who will bring their institutional wisdom and history to the decision making table. These are the people that will help us grow into the next 10 years, because they will remember where we came from and what we’ve learned along the way.”
The discussion and debate among the leaders went on long after the party had ended, and it was probably the most important conversation they’d had together this year. As you look at your own leadership, what are the conversations you need to be engaging in? What resolutions could you make that would best serve your company, its culture and its brand? What mistakes have you made this year, and how will you course correct in the coming months? These are the most important questions to ponder as you contemplate the New Year. And, in doing so remember, in vino veritas.
This article by Alaina Love was originally published in SmartBrief on Leadership in December, 2105.