The 4 Biggest Mistakes You Can Make in Strategic Planning

The 4 Biggest Mistakes You Can Make in Strategic Planning

I have been facilitating strategic planning for the past 30 years in organizations large and small, and seen the spectrum of success – from organizations that actually transform themselves, to those that eventually “go away” (out of business, merged) due to inability to implement a new direction.  Here are the biggest mistakes that I see leadership teams make in strategic planning. 

1. Not Understanding Your Current Culture

The old adage that “Culture eats strategy for lunch” is true – along with breakfast and dinner. If you are oblivious to what your culture is, what causes it and how it operates, my bet is that your strategic planning process actually REINFORCES your current culture. That’s great, if your culture is highly Constructive[1]. If it’s not, however – you won’t get the results you hope for.     

If you wonder why your strategic planning efforts fall short or plans are never implemented, then the issue is your culture, not your plan. You probably have a Defensive[2] culture — one in which people feel they need to protect themselves to maintain their own security as member of your organization.  The impact of a Defensive culture is that people avoid engaging, are reluctant to put forth ideas, are wary of change, and may actively undermine your plan. 

I was actually hired by one very prescient CEO who said, “you are the fifth consultant/facilitator we’ve hired. I take the leadership team off-site for two days every year to do strategic planning, but nothing is ever implemented. I am wondering if we have a culture problem.” We found out he did, by assessing that first, and then building a planning process that actually started to change culture at the same time.

2. Lack of Leadership Cohesion

For me, this is often a leading indicator of a Defensive culture. If the leadership team is not cohesive,  they will often enter into strategic planning with competing agendas and group dynamics that produce a “lukewarm” plan to which they tepidly commit.  Sometimes they try to work this out in the process of strategic planning; other times I suggest working with the team in advance to deal with some of the dynamics before starting planning. 

If the leadership team is NOT cohesive coming out of strategic planning, individual leaders will work their own agendas — sending mixed messages about direction and priorities down into the organization. This creates anxiety for employees at all levels who want to do the right thing but don’t know who to please. The result is that some employees “lay low” (opt-out, try to avoid blame) while others may get more aggressive (argue, oppose, just do and ask questions later). Both sets of behaviors are the opposite of authentic employee engagement.

3. Benevolent Paternalism / Lack of Engagement

Engagement is not culture – it is the outcome of culture.  You need to get to the underlying beliefs, values, and expectations (often unwritten and yet strongly reinforced) that causes an employee to engage or not.

One of the expectations that I have found in organizations when doing strategic planning is what I call “benevolent paternalism” — i.e. the belief that leaders need to shield employees from information that might worry them.  The result of this belief is that execs and managers do not share what is happening in the larger world and how the organization needs to adapt. 

I have found that when employees and stakeholder are authentically brought into the planning process and work with leaders to create a shared understanding of current reality, they are invaluable in defining strategy that will actually work. They are also more willing to see their own roles, to trust leaders to lead, and to endure the discomfort of implementation. Why? Because now they truly understand “The Why”.

Successful strategic planning is based on a shared understanding of current reality as well as a shared vision for the future. That means that both execs and employees are working together to create these shared pictures – from employees understanding the potential impact of economic and geopolitical forces, to execs understanding the conditions of the workplace and the capacity of employees to weather these forces. Having authentic conversations together about the totality of current reality and where the organization needs to go creates that shared vision.    

4. Not Planning for Adaptability

Many folks think that once a plan is done, they don’t need to revisit it again for another year. At the beginning of implementation, strategies are straightforward because they were based on the current reality at the time. However, we know too well that reality changes quickly these days, and part of the work of strategic implementation is to determine which of those changes warrants a change in direction.  THAT is what planning checkpoints are all about!

Without formal planning checkpoints, two things can happen, often at the same time. One, the organization continues to follow its road-map even though it gets harder to do and is less effective; and two, those who are sensitive to change in the environment may simply course-correct on their own, potentially creating confusion in the organization as a whole. Often, blame gets cast as people dig into their positions, trust goes down, and chaos ensues. 

Strategic implementation checkpoints should be done more than once a year – I would suggest every 4-6 months.  Checkpoints should be as inclusive as possible and engage employees as well as leaders to do a quick reassessment of current reality (what’s changed since the last look, and what does it mean?) and then determine what needs to change (if anything) as a result, and how.

A Word of Encouragement

If some of these issues resonate with you, know that you are not alone! And if you want some help in doing strategic planning differently, let’s talk. We will design a high-engagement process for your organization based on an assessment of your culture first, so that you begin to change your culture (if needed) in the process of planning and build on it during implementation for lasting success.

About the Author

Cathy Perme is the Managing Partner of Perme & Peterson Associates, LLC. She has run a successful independent consulting firm in Minneapolis for thirty years that has helped hundreds of organizations, from two-person firms to multinational corporations to focus clearly, organize effectively, and act with courage. She enjoys working with all levels of an organization, from CEO’s to line workers, and believes that we all have the opportunity to “take the lead” in our personal and professional lives. 

[1] A term coined by Human Synergistics, Inc. which has been researching and measuring organizational culture for over 46 years. Constructive cultures are correlated with high performance, quality, integrity, teamwork, engagement and effective communication.

[2] The opposite of Constructive, this term by Human Synergistics, Inc. describes cultures that are correlated with bureaucracy, poor quality, lack of engagement, internal politics and high stress and turnover.

 

 

–Cathy
Catherine M. (Cathy) Perme is a partner at Peterson & Perme Associates, LLC and the author of “Confucius in My Cubicle: Practical Wisdom for the Leader in All of Us” (2017), available on Amazon.

Contact Peterson & Perme Associates

Phone: 952.831.4131

e-Mail:  info@petersonperme.com

Focusing… and Dealing with Competing Needs

Focusing… and Dealing with Competing Needs

 

Welcome to the world of 24/7/365 – where the average leader and professional are constantly available via their smart phones, the piles of work are higher than ever before, and everyone is judged on how well they accomplish it on a timely basis.

As I write this, I am behind on deadlines for my audiobook, which I had agreed to finish recording by the end of the month (but had underestimated how long it would take!) In the meantime, my calendar filled up with meetings and new things are coming up daily that need my time and attention.   I am feeling stressed and panicky wondering if I will be able to get everything done well and on time! 

These feelings of stress and panic are normal.  They also make it hard to decide where to focus your attention, because everything seems to need your time and attention, right now!  So how do you handle it, if crawling into a box is not the answer?

Here are six practices that have worked for me:

  1. Breathe!

Take time to calm yourself.  If you can give yourself at least 10 minutes to breath and calm down, you will think more clearly.   Sometimes I have felt so panicked that I must force myself to do this by putting a timer on for 10 minutes, which seems to give me permission to take a break to calm down.  (Weird, I know.)

  1. Evaluate the importance and urgency of your tasks.   

Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Effective Leaders talked about clearly evaluating a task by identifying how important it is, and then how urgent it is.   He then suggested a course of action, which I have used over and over to help me focus.  Using his model, I can sort out what is important and urgent (like client issues that must be addressed quickly) and set aside sacred time for the important but not urgent (like my audiobook).  In addition, I have learned to let go of things that are not important or urgent (by putting off “nice-to-do’s”) and/or looping in someone else to handle what is urgent but not important to me.   

  1. Reschedule or cancel meetings.

Meetings are an incredible drain on time – not only do you need to show up for them, but often you need to prepare for them and follow-up afterward.   Take a look at the meetings you have committed to and see if you can free up some time to deal with the more important work on which you need to focus.  Here are some ideas:

  • Is it a meeting that you can temporarily post-pone? — i.e. important but not urgent. 
  • Is it a face-to-face meeting that you can make into a conference call or virtual meeting?  I’ve found that I can often cover the same content in a virtual meeting and save myself 1-2 hours – in both transit time and social time, since we get down to business faster in a virtual meeting. 
  • Is it a meeting that one of your staff could attend instead of you? This might be a great way to offer development opportunities for junior staff. 
  • Is it a routine meeting that you can possibly skip this week, or get out of altogether?
  1. Determine the leadership style you need.

Be careful about what leadership style you slip into when you are stressed and panicked.  Most leaders I have seen (and I often have this knee-jerk reaction myself) believe that they need to take control of the situation immediately!  Not so, especially if you have done the evaluative work above.   

If you move too quickly into a tell/control-oriented style much of the time, you will foster dependency and lack of accountability within the organization.   And if you constantly usurp your staff’s work with “this needs to get done today” demands, you will create an organization that reels from crisis to crisis and causes “burn out” and disengagement with staff. 

So, it behooves you to think carefully about what kind of leadership style you need to use to address an urgent and important situation without always taking control.  Who can assist with this issue? Take the time to fully brief and discuss the situation with your associate or direct report, get some opinions, and clearly identify roles, responsibilities, and a plan to move forward.  Yes, this may take a little more time than just directing someone to do something.  And it may be one of the wisest investments of time and effort that you make. 

  1. Say “no” when you need to, and mean it.

We all hate to disappoint others and go back on our commitments, but sometimes we may need to do so.   I recently told my audiobook producer that I wasn’t going to make my month-end deadline, and needed to negotiate a new one.   It is more realistic and honest than promising something that I cannot deliver.  

When it is clear that something is no longer workable, you need to find a way to extract yourself from it.  Talk to the other person and see if there is another way for the work to be accomplished without you.   Do take responsibility for your part, but do not take on guilt for doing this.  Almost everyone understands that life happens and most of the time we are not in control of it.

  1. Schedule like a doctor.

Although this is my last piece of advice, it perhaps should have come first.   Even if you are a busy executive, you need to carve out unscheduled time in your calendar to deal with the unexpected.  Much like a doctor who schedules routine exams months out but leaves time to deal with urgent needs and emergencies, you need to block out some unscheduled time in your calendar each week. 

If you have an administrative assistant, give that person instructions about how much to fill your calendar each week.  If you calendar your own time, set up calendar blocks that no one else can fill without your permission. 

Then stick to it!  If for some reason you have some free time to yourself, you can work on your “important but not urgent” tasks. 

In summary, to be personally effective, maintaining your focus is important.   To do so, you will need to monitor and adjust your own tendencies in the moment, and put structures in place that assist your effort.  

I hope these ideas are helpful – let me know what works for you!

–Cathy
Catherine M. (Cathy) Perme is a partner at Peterson & Perme Associates, LLC and the author of “Confucius in My Cubicle: Practical Wisdom for the Leader in All of Us” (2017), available on Amazon.

Contact Peterson & Perme Associates

Phone: 952.831.4131

e-Mail:  info@petersonperme.com

Raising All Boats

Raising All Boats

Truth be told, I could have been a hell of a union organizer.  Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio unions were part of my everyday life.  Most kids in my neighborhood had at least one family member in a union.   And in fact, those unions were essential to the health and well-being of our moms and dads in manufacturing, steel, and foundry work; they also helped provide us with the solid middle-class life that we all enjoyed. 

The engineer in me chose a different path, however — helping people and organizations as they wrestle with what is needed to keep in business, while adapting to unrelenting change in the world around them.  Over the last thirty years, I’ve worked with all levels of management from CEO to line supervisors, and all levels of union leadership (including union presidents, union stewards, business agents, and union members) in the process of change. 

As a result, I honor both management and unions as clear stakeholders in the process of change. Both are essential to constructive change that “raises all boats.”  That analogy is what late Senator Paul Wellstone from Minnesota defined as change that betters both a society and the individuals within it.   

However, it’s the mind-set that each side brings to the table that can either make or break that outcome.  Below are some strategies to work together constructively, based on how I’ve seen successful leaders (on both sides) do that.  

For Management: 

The most successful and respected managers I’ve worked with over the years have had several traits in common that help build trust with unions in the process of change. 

  • They authentically care about their workers
  • They are upfront and true to their word
  • They assume good intentions
  • They replace judgement with inquiry when conflicts occur

Here is how you as a manager can work with unions to drive change that helps to “raise all boats.”   

Respect the union/union leader’s role and treat them like partners in change. 

This means creating a constructive culture with them, by being transparent about the big picture that you are seeing, soliciting their input, and inviting them into the problem-solving process with you.   It means exploring and finding solutions that support success for both the organization and the workers involved.       

Be transparent and communicate as often as possible.

Where possible (taking into consideration privacy laws) be transparent about what’s happening in your organization and the world around you, that the organization must address.  You need to provide information and context, especially in a rapidly changing world.  Don’t sugar-coat bad news, but do position it for greater understanding. 

Be clear about your decision-making boundaries.

Unlike unions, the typical organization is NOT a democracy.  Managers have a responsibility for the organization as a whole, and decision-making authority to enable that.  As a result, it is important that youare clear about how you will make decisions in this rapidly changing world. 

  • On what issues you are willing to take feedback and input before making a decision?
  • Where you are willing to develop a consensual solution to a problem?
  • Where you must ultimately make the decision yourself (and why?)

I have found that when managers work respectfully and not judgmentally with unions, unions also respond in new ways.   As a result, when managers and union leaders are opposed on issues, decisions and negotiations that are built on mutual respect and trust– although not always liked – are often accepted by all.   

For Unions:

The unions I’ve worked with over the years have represented a wide variety of professions, from manufacturing to higher ed, from crafts people to office workers, from police officers to teachers to custodians.  In working with union leaders in organizational change efforts,  I often see two different mind-sets, each with different effectiveness when it comes to change.   

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

I sometimes describe a fixed mind-set as “Old Union” because it operates from a sharp distrust of management and sees every interaction as a battle to be won.  This mind-set has a very narrow view of the world and often assumes that management has control and influence over everything in the world around them.  It discounts external trends and pressures that threaten the organization’s success and survival, declaring it as management’s problem, not theirs.   

Unfortunately, what starts as a “win-lose” proposition often becomes “lose-lose” by the end.  That’s because long-term, the organization may go out of business or be otherwise hampered by something outside of management’s control.  (Lawsuits, anyone?)

I sometimes describe a growth mind-set as “New Union” because it recognizes that management is not in total control of the world around them– and that the organization needs to adapt to survive.   The union leaders I’ve met that have this mind-set are logical, well-informed, and aware of the challenges that the organization faces.  And unions with this mind-set see themselves as important partners (with management) in shaping that change.  It is about “win-win.” 

Suggestions to “raise all boats”

Here is how I have seen successful and respected union leaders and members both advocate for core principles, and work with management to “raise all boats” in the process of change. 

  • See the larger picture and help your members understand it, so that the union as a whole can be more effective.
  • Do provide input and advocate for members’ needs to the larger organization.
  • Work with management to craft win-win solutions where possible.
  • Take on key issues within the union (versus simply protect your members) if the reputation of your profession as a whole is diminishing.
    • A great example of this occurred when a local teacher’s union decided to take on the issue of ineffective teachers because the reputation of teachers as a whole was suffering in the community. They worked with the administration to identify and implement professional development to support teachers, as well as procedural justice to deal fairly with those who should no longer teach. 

The Bottom Line

Bottom-line, both management and unions need to take ownership for change as well as recognize each other as partners in change.  When this occurs, they can work together to deal with the continual need for organizations to adapt to change and to support the individuals that work in them, thereby “raising all boats.”

 

–Cathy
Catherine M. (Cathy) Perme is a partner at Peterson & Perme Associates, LLC.

 

Organizational Courage – Part 2

Organizational Courage – Part 2

What does organizational courage demand?

In part one of my two-part post, I introduced the notion of organizational courage and shared my thoughts on what it is and provided some framing. In this post I will share practical strategies and action steps you can take to build courage within your organization. 

As we know, the root for bravery is medieval French (“brave” meaning “splendid, valiant”) and medieval Italian (“bravo,” which originally meant “bold, wild, or savage”), and one could get the idea that bravery is all about show—and that drama, outward appearances, and public approval are important aspects of bravery. However, the root for courage is the Latin word “cor,” meaning “heart.” So, courage is about doing what is closest to the heart—in other words, what is important and gives us life.

The motive for courage is what makes it special; the role of courage is to make our vision and values real. Hence, I define organizational courage as the will to act in the face of fear or despair in order to enhance constructive and human growth.

Courage demands a personal vs. unexamined commitment1

When an organization simply “sells” the vision and “socializes” employees, it does not foster a personal commitment to deeper values and meaning. The introspection needed to personally commit to an action or idea is not performed by the vast majority of people and is not encouraged in organizational life. If one does take the time to reflect on the deeper meaning of an issue, the resulting values and actions will often fly in the face of currently established norms. Courageous people raise questions that others would not even think to ask. Remember the management team mentioned in part one of this blog post? What each of them struggled with was personal commitment—for the first time, they were faced with examining the meaning of the vision and the potential impact on their lives.

Courage demands being centered in values and vision

In many organizations, the vision and values, if stated, are rhetoric nicely framed on the wall or stuck in desk drawers and hauled out once a year for the annual report. Being “centered” in the vision and values means being continually focused and in dialog about them throughout the organization and, therefore, ensuring that they truly drive the organization’s day-to-day operating culture.

Courage means facing fears, living with anxiety, and letting go of results

I have watched people at every level of an organization wait patiently to “be empowered” from above, including a president who wanted to “be empowered” by the board. Courage is the power in empowerment.

When we strive to create our vision, the results aren’t predictable. To worry and obsess about them and try to control the outcome of our efforts before we even start will paralyze us. Unfortunately many organizational processes not only encourage but promote this “analysis paralysis” and penalize heavily for mistakes made along the way.

How do you build organizational courage?

Wherever you are in the organization

Empower yourself first. 

It is critical to clarify your own vision and values before signing up for someone else’s. Most adults have not thought about their values since they were teenagers, and yet our personal values shape our actions and responses to life. No matter where you are in an organization, you need to know what you stand for first. Then you can decide if the vision and values espoused by the organization are something you want to embrace. There will be no joy in working for an organization that you cannot fundamentally support. If vision and values have not been clarified or are out of focus, you have an opportunity to help shape them.

Start working in your “own backyard.” No matter if you run a business, manage a department of 70, or simply manage your own desk, you can start to create the kind of organization in which you want to work. Are you committed to providing stellar customer service? Then start giving it to everyone for whom you work and who works for you, rather than complain about poor service from others. By doing so, you will become much more centered in what customer service means, and by your actions you will begin to show others how to follow suit. You can start a multiplier effect simply by acting on the vision and values to which you are committed, and have a powerful impact on the organization without needing a fancy title or positional authority.

Help the organization find its touchstones and anchors.

An organization’s vision, mission, and values are its core, its anchors during turbulent times. They reflect our highest call to make a difference, feel useful, and be part of a successful and worthwhile organization—but we need to translate that call to everyday action, and sometimes we need help in doing that. A touchstone is a symbol, idea, mental picture, or story that brings us back to what’s important, to rapidly call us back to the vision and values when we seem adrift and confused. No matter where you are in the organization, you can help people define their touchstones and enrich the culture with stories and symbols that provide guidance during difficult times.

As an executive or manager

Examine and acknowledge your own fears first.2

When working with the concept of organizational courage, it’s important that we start with ourselves first. Fear is a normal human emotion. It can be rational or irrational—it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that suppressing it makes it grow because we’ve never brought it into the light for a good, hard examination. So we just continue to feed the fear and justify its existence.

What are executives and managers afraid of? Beyond the obvious business and personal survival fears, common fears are those of not being good enough, not being needed, losing control, disappointing others, and being “found out” (that one isn’t as good as he/she projects). What’s interesting about fear is that it makes us all believe that we are the only people who have this problem.

Before you can help your employees move past their fears, you must work on yourself first. This requires probing gently and honestly into the depths of your own fears. One technique is to map them down to the deepest possible level and examine what you are really afraid of and why.

Look at what you do that communicates or reinforces fear.

Executives especially can look totally impenetrable to the rest of the organization. Human frailties are masked over by position and title. If you have a strong personality, as most entrepreneurs do, your mere presence can intimidate people and your slightest comment taken as a firm command or reprimand to the affected parties. You may not even know what you do that strikes fear into the hearts of your employees, but fear you they will. So it is up to you to understand how you come across, show your own humanity, and change your behavior. Do you bark orders at your staff? Do you find only mistakes in the work presented to you and forget to praise their efforts? Do you constantly remind them, even in subtle ways, who pays the bills and what they can do if they don’t like it there? Do you shame them for making mistakes? You probably have legitimate concerns about your business, but how you communicate them will dictate the level of fear in your organization.

Help your organization to name and acknowledge its fears.

A lot of fear in organizations is caused by events—mergers, acquisitions, economic downturns, technical innovations, job changes, lawsuits, layoffs, etc. It is critical to get people to verbalize their fears and understand that it’s normal and OK to be afraid. How we act on our fears is what’s important.

Talk to your employees about your own fears and your own choices based on your vision and current reality. Ask them to share theirs. Acknowledge that it is a fearful time and that it is OK to be afraid. Remind them that fear is a normal emotion and that courage means walking with fear, not being fearless.

Give your employees as much information as possible about current reality—even if the outlook is not great. Holding out on them only feeds their fears because they will be convinced that the situation is worse than it is and act accordingly. Treat your employees like adults who can take care of themselves versus children that you need to protect, and you will get a workforce who act like adults.

Organizational courage is attainable, but it’s an inside-out job!

Be personally courageous—modeling courage is the best way to promote it.3

Do you have a management team that can’t seem to get the courage to do what needs to be done? Then you need to show them. Be voracious in your quest to acknowledge and embrace current reality: request and listen to feedback, get a variety of views, challenge your own filters, and admit your own fears. In front of your team, choose and re-choose your vision every day. Every meeting, ask what you need to do, that day, to help realize the vision. Then do it…and let go. 4

Even if the results of your actions are not seen on a daily basis, employees watching you be honest with yourself (and them) and then take appropriate action in spite of fear will be called to act a little more courageously themselves. True courage shines like a beacon and lifts up our spirits, reminding us that we are bound to each other in common humanity.

Organizational courage is an elusive, yet wondrous power. It is a quality that is critical to giving our lives and organizations meaning, and to move us through the upheaval of modern day. Organizational courage is attainable, but it’s an inside-out job!

What are your thoughts and what would you add to this topic? I welcome and look forward to your comments on LinkedIn.

[Editor’s note: This blog post was adapted from an article written by Cathy and published in Minnesota Ventures, Oct. 1991; it was republished in the Minnesota Ventures Growth Guide, May 1993; and has been updated for this blog, April 2019.]

Notes: 

1Walston, S. F. (2010, July 10). Awakening Courageous Leadership. Retrieved from http://www.trainingindustry.com/leadership/articles/awakening-courageous-leadership.aspx

2Taylor, J. (2009, October 21). Business: Why Change is So Hard, and How to Make it Easier. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/200910/business-why-change-is-so-hard-and-how-make-it-easier

3Tardanico, S. (2015, January 13). 10 Traits of Courageous Leaders. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/susantardanico/2013/01/15/10-traits-of-courageous-leaders/#263b88ac5104

4Klein, M., & Napier, R. (2003).  Transform The Courage to Act:  5 Factors of Courage to Business. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.

 

Organizational Courage – Part 1

Organizational Courage – Part 1

On a recent bright Minnesota morning, tucked into one of the thousands of conference rooms across the state, a management team sat somberly. Several weeks earlier they had participated in a meaningful retreat with key employees and clients, rediscovering and clarifying their vision, values, and goals for the organization. Spirits were high that day and energy seemed to crackle as it moved about the room, fueled by the vision of what they wanted to create. Now, however, new developments in corporate politics made the vision seem nigh on impossible, and the group was about to surrender in defeat, once again melting into the mediocrity of organizational bureaucracy.

Finding personal courage is hard enough, but what happens when an entire organization needs courage?1Courage is the will to act in spite of fear or despair, for the purpose of human growth. Fostering organizational courage is difficult but the key lies in being true to vision and values while at the same time embracing current reality, despair, and fears.

What takes courage in an organization?

Facing and naming current reality

This sounds simple, but it is extremely difficult to be honest about current reality.2 Truth hurts sometimes, and therefore we have all developed filters that remove the unpleasant parts, especially if we are party to their creation. When these filters are institutionalized, they can blind everyone in an organization to what is really going on, both internally and externally, with markets and management and finances. When people in organizations deny their reality, it also makes asking for help nearly impossible—if done, it is usually under duress while blaming others and too late for anything other than a crisis intervention.

Institutionalized filters can take many forms:

  • executives who only want to hear good news and are threatened by negative results,3
  • management reporting systems that report on the wrong things,
  • bureaucracies that distort and fragment information,
  • a general intolerance and/or misuse of feedback, and
  • procedures and processes designed to “channel” information and omit what doesn’t “fit” from the agenda.

In one large corporation, the president had been so sheltered from employees and the organization in such turmoil that employees themselves started communicating horizontally via an unauthorized media platform about their concerns, feelings, and perceptions about what was happening. Upper management found out about it and planned to take action to ensure this would never happen again, but the president “stayed the execution” and silently monitored the feedback. In another organization, where the business was headed south, the division controller was told that it would be political suicide to forecast anything other than a “make” on year end numbers.

It takes courage to tell people, as openly and caringly as possible, what they may not want to hear. As an employee, it takes even more courage to give that feedback, because all too often you can be “shot” or written off as a whiner, a troublemaker, or—worse yet—a poor performer.

It’s much easier to live in a fantasy world and pretend that everything is OK and under our control. The latter is especially important in traditional management, whose function is dedicated to plan, organize, measure, and control. The underlying assumption is that we have control over the world around us, when we really don’t. The only control we have is over our own actions.

Living values and vision

No matter where you are in an organization, there is risk involved in living values and vision.4 Granted, it is easier for an executive to demand accountability from others in this, but he or she must also live the vision and values and be willing to be held accountable for them. It takes courage to tell people what you believe in, ask to be challenged if you do not live up to it, and then really listen when someone gives you feedback!

In one example, a merger of two companies was heralded with much fanfare, and the new executive team made a point of creating and sharing their vision and values with the new organization. It was an uplifting experience, beautifully done. They used all the right words, and the pride and hope on people’s faces was evident. What a pity that the executives did not hold themselves accountable to their values for superior customer service and quality;  it showed in how they managed and treated their people, who they even referred to as “the help.” Within three months, anger and bitterness replaced the hope and pride as people felt confused and misled. Needless to say, customer service and quality declined.

Making choices and setting priorities

Especially in an age of “Do it all, now!,” it takes courage to set priorities and make strategic choices. Just the act of telling your boss, your customers, your employees, or your constituents that you are going to focus your attention on several key issues (as opposed to the normal slateful) is difficult. Doing it is even harder. We are used to hearing ourselves and others talk about priorities, and then get distracted with a myriad of other issues that seem easier or safer or more immediate. Meanwhile, the “priorities” continue to water down until even reciting them becomes a joke. Maintaining focus takes courage, because it means making choices about how to spend your time and energy, often in new and different ways, and not everyone may be happy with the choices.

Sustaining spirit

How often have you felt beaten down by “the system?” I have heard employees, managers, and CEOs from the same company lament their powerlessness to deal with “the system.” That is because it takes an incredible amount of energy to overcome systemic barriers that are actually organic in nature—they fuel their own growth. After a while it takes too much effort to be creative, and even organizational “champions” lose their spirit. The key lies not in pushing harder but in finding the leverage points necessary to create change. But it takes real courage to find the energy to do this when what you feel is complete despair that anything will help.

Facing fears

Fear is a “four-letter word” in organizational life. We don’t want to talk about it, and we deny we even feel it. We’ve been taught all our lives not to be afraid, so to admit fear is to admit weakness and failure, and the last place we want to do that is in our jobs or businesses!

Yet fear feeds on itself and grows in darkness; it can ultimately paralyze an entire organization. Fear is normal and OK to have. Courage means walking with fear. Naming and embracing the fears that you and others have about your organization or your future is vitally important. Until fear is brought into the open, it takes control of us and we cannot make appropriate choices. If we can acknowledge our fear, it loses its grip and we can choose to progress despite it.

What is Organizational Courage?

More than bravery

It is possible to be brave without being courageous. If you work long, hard hours and do what the culture expects, you might well be lauded for your heroics. At the same time, will you have really made a difference?

The root for bravery is medieval French (“brave” meaning “splendid, valient”) and medieval Italian (“bravo,” which originally meant “bold, wild, or savage”). One quickly gets the notion that bravery is all about show—and that drama, outward appearances, and public approval are important aspects of bravery—whereas the root for courage is the Latin word “cor,” meaning “heart.” So courage is about doing what is closest to the heart—in other words, what is important and gives us life. The motive for courage is what makes it special.

I define organizational courage as the will to act in the face of  fear or despair in order to enhance constructive and human growth. It means that you have a genuine concern for the development of human and organizational potential with an appreciation for the interconnectedness of all living things. Organizations are nothing more than people linked together by a web of activity toward a common end. We organize because we want to accomplish something. And when that “something” beckons us to reach beyond ourselves and join together to create something worthy of us, it is called a vision. The role of courage is to make our vision and values real.

How do you build organizational courage?

In part two of my blog post titled, “Organizational Courage, How to Build it,” I will share practical strategies and immediate action steps you can take starting tomorrow to build courage within your organization!

[Editor’s note: This blog post was adapted from an article written by Cathy and published in Minnesota Ventures, Oct. 1991; it was republished in the Minnesota Ventures Growth Guide, May 1993; and has been updated for this blog, April 2019.]

Notes: 

1Perme, C. (1998, November). From the Heart. Retrieved from http://cmperme.com/wp-content/uploads/cmp9811.pdf

2Perme, C. (2015, July 23). Organizational Culture: The Memory of an Elephant. ConstructiveCulture.com. Retrieved from http://constructiveculture.com/organizational-culture-the-memory-of-an-elephant/

3Kanter, R. M. (2011, December). Courage in the C-Suite. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2011/12/courage-in-the-c-suite

4Beilke, S. (2016, February 23). Culture Creep: The Impact on Business Results. Retrieved from http://www.cultureuniversity.com/culture-creep-the-impact-on-business-results/

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