Leadership at Home

December 12, 2009

Elizabeth Weil – who is now working on a “memoir about marriage improvement” called No Cheating, No Dying – wrote a riveting piece for the New York Times Magazine about trying to improve her own relatively functional marriage.  The project occurred to her when she realized how little conscious effort she was putting into the relationship, in contrast to almost all other areas of her life (work, kids, redoing the bathroom).

I was particularly moved by two passages.  The first spoke to the link between private relationships and public impact:

In psychiatry, the term “good-enough mother” describes the parent who loves her child well enough for him to grow into an emotionally healthy adult. The goal is mental health, defined as the fortitude and flexibility to live one’s own life — not happiness. This is a crucial distinction. Similarly the “good-enough marriage” is characterized by its capacity to allow spouses to keep growing, to afford them the strength and bravery required to face the world.

And when the goal is leadership, “good-enough” may not be enough. One pattern we’ve observed in our own work is that people who have strong, energizing private relationships, whether with friends or family or partners, have an easier time leading in the public sphere.  They have the emotional energy to stand up and take the inevitable hits and falls.  A counter-intuitive lesson for aspiring leaders is to strengthen their connections to their favorite people, who may not have anything to do with their vision for change.

The second paragraph that got me touched on the fundamental contract between any two people, in any organization, including a family unit.  As a note of caution, I’m giving away the ending here:

Over the months Dan and I applied ourselves to our marriage, we struggled, we bridled, we jockeyed for position. Dan grew enraged at me; I pulled away from him. I learned things about myself and my relationship with Dan I had worked hard not to know. But as I watched Dan sleep — his beef-heart recipe earmarked, his power lift planned — I felt more committed than ever. I also felt our project could begin in earnest: we could demand of ourselves, and each other, the courage and patience to grow.

The courage and patience to grow. One definition of leadership may be to pull those things out of ourselves and each other.

Culture Change at GM: Declaring it Doesn’t Make it So

October 9, 2009

The NYT reported that the board of GM wanted the culture of the organization to change:

In the interim, Mr. Henderson stressed that G.M.’s new board was pushing management to speed up decisions on new products and install a culture devoted to pleasing customers.

I’m not optimistic. The first red flag is the title of the article, G.M. Is Adapting to a New Culture, Chief Says.  In my experience, culture doesn’t change upon decree from the top.  Culture exists because of years of reinforcing norms and behaviors.  It exists because smart people constantly pick up on how status is gained and which behaviors are valued in practice (not in the introduction to the annual report). Changing culture requires unraveling and replacing that normative system in a comprehensive way.  The analogy that always comes to mind is clearing a patch of land to be farmed. You can’t just cut down the trees and declare victory. You have to get your hands dirty beneath the surface, digging up roots and turning over the soil.

In other words, you have to address the underlying conditions that allowed certain behaviors to thrive in the organization. Where to begin?  I suggest starting with my favorite question, now familiar to our readers:  why would reasonable, well-intentioned people do what they’re doing?  Once you can answer this question with an open heart, once you can identify the organizational drivers of the actions and choices you want to change, then you can begin to influence them.

Maybe the article got it wrong, but if it’s even close to correct, the 90 days allocated to this activity at GM will be wildly insufficient.

Feedback and Trust

September 4, 2009

I want to revisit your discussion on feedback, Frances, because I think the topic often gets lost in the race to do things that feel more important organizationally.

The ability and willingness to communicate honestly is often framed as a soft contribution, nice but not critical in these serious times.  I take the opposite view.  I think feedback is the central act in building organizations since it creates the raw material that matters most:  trust.

Trust is necessary for any task that involves more than one person, which includes most of what an organization does all day (deciding things, making things, selling things). Trust persuades your employees to give you their best ideas and most productive hours.  Trust convinces your customers to believe your brand promises.

Trust gets built when we do what we say we will do. This is a fairly straightforward concept, but somehow gets highly complex in practice.  Calls get dropped.  Guitars get broken. Bonuses go unpaid. Companies who are competing on strong relationships with their stakeholders – think Google, Zappos, Whole Foods — work hard to prevent these violations, big and small.  They understand that trust dies in the space between talk and action.

But here’s the thing — we’re not reliable observers of these gaps in our own behavior. This is where feedback enters the story. We often don’t know when we’re letting our constituents down.  We often don’t know when we’re under-delivering on commitments, spoken or unspoken.  Feedback gives people the chance to address the variance, to close the distance between chatter and truth.

Customers give you this gift when they pick up the phone to “complain.”  A complaint identifies the weakness in the relationship, the place where trust must be built or rebuilt.  Frustrated and articulate customers are the competitive equivalent of Christmas morning, but they’re more likely to be treated like a nuisance or distraction.

The same dynamics play out in all human relationships.  Trust gets eroded every day between reasonable, well-intentioned people, and it can’t be restored unless we talk honestly with each other.   The reason feedback can change lives, as you suggest, is not just because it makes someone else better in a vague sense. Feedback changes lives because it creates the opening for greater integrity in our most important relationships. Feedback builds trust. And trust builds everything else.