Blog: Leading & Living Courageously

Do you have the conditions to take your team to the next level?

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When an organization or team wants to generate a bolder and more compelling future and strategy, and rapidly and powerfully take its game to the next level it has to address two dimensions: the “content” associated with the future or strategy, and the “context” associated with the future or strategy.

The content means making sure that there is a clear, precise, robust and well-structured game plan, which for most teams is in the form of a strategy or set of objectives. The leaders must ensure that everyone on the team understands the strategy in the same way.

In so many organizations and teams this seemingly simple step is not achieved in a powerful and effective way. Typically the strategy is too high level, vague or conceptual, and different team members have different ideas, interpretations, agendas and priorities about the direction, methodology and destination.

I started working with a new division of well known successful global telecommunication organization. As part of learning about this division I set up interviews with all the senior executives and a hand full of managers that report to them. One of my interview questions was “Do you have a clear vision and strategy that everyone understands, is aligned with, owns and works passionately together toward?

Most people answered “No!” And, many added with frustration or discouragement “It’s really hard to get alignment. We sit in meetings discussing our strategy about specific initiatives. We leave the meeting thinking we have agreement and then everyone goes off to their area and does what they want anyway.”

Some leaders said “Yes!” but when I asked them to elaborate on the vision or strategy, their description was either extremely watered down and high-level or there were significant discrepancies between people’s descriptions on key areas.

I see this dynamic in many successful teams and organizations.

The context means making sure there is a team dynamic – some refer to it as: culture, environment or mindset – in which everyone can truly be open, honest, authentic and courageous, and an environment in which people genuinely feel “in this together”, even if they don’t all report to the same boss, which is the case in any matrix management environment; an environment in which everyone is excited about the game and feels genuine ownership commitment and accountability toward the bigger success.

In most teams, including the most successful ones, most people feel the exact opposite way. They describe the dynamic of team communication as more cautious, calculated, politically correct and held back. Even those who feel that the team can discuss everything in an open and honest manner often add the caveat “discussions are not effective and they frequently don’t lead to concrete decisions that everyone fully own and is aligned behind.” Or “when we do make decisions we don’t track them and follow through.” These symptoms are always lagging indicators of lack of authentic ownership in the first place.

Addressing the content alone will at best produce a dynamic of unenthusiastic compliance. But often it produces frustrations, fear and resignation. This will be insufficient for achieving a new, more powerful game.

I see so many managers who ignore or are blind to the importance of building a strong context in their team. They manage their teams in a command-control style believing that if they oversee all the details rigorously they’ll eliminate the likelihood of shortfalls and ensure all the key milestones are met. This behavior comes from a paradigm of “I don’t trust my people to own the game and do whatever is needed to ensure success” And, these managers are right! Their behavior is self-fulfilling. It causes people to operate in a mode of fear, resentment and compliance. People do the minimum to get the job done but they don’t apply half their passion, commitment or resourcefulness to the game.

Attending to the context alone will also not sustain because un-channeled enthusiasm will not be productive over time. When people will realize that progress and results are not being achieved they’ll quickly become discouraged and cynical.

I worked with a general manager who was a great guy. He had great character, empathy and integrity. When he stood in front of the troops he always motivated everyone. In short, everyone loved him. But, he wasn’t able to translate his vision into action and results. So, he started to lose his credibility. After a while people started to roll their eyes when he spoke and it wasn’t long before he was let go.

So, if you want to elevate your team to the next level you have to address both the “content” and “context” aspects associated with the new future direction or strategy you want to bring about.

Photo by: Lori Greig

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