I was speaking at the annual sales kick-off meeting of a growing successful global telecommunication company. This event was impressively managed with main stage events, breakout sessions and a barrage of high-end social activities.
Like similar events, the themes were catchy, motivational and relevant. The messages were powerful and well presented by the senior executives, and the presentations were effective at inciting and pumping up everyone to do their best in the coming year.
At the end, the event scores seem to be high, the senior executives left feeling great, and judging by the high energy, everyone seemed to be on board. A picture perfect reality.
Companies invest so much money in these mega events. They hire the best production companies to ensure things run like a Swiss clock, and there are always inspiring themes and slogans to incite commitment and urgency among the troops – things like: “This is our time!”,”Winning together!”, “Our time is now!”, “Be the change!” and “The future is here now!”
Big stage presentations are often highly inspiring and exciting, as this is the opportunity for the CEO and his or her senior executives to shine by patting themselves and their teams on the back for great performance and progress. It is also their chance to show their human, personable, vulnerable, charming, funny and visionary side. And, to top it all off, there is usually a great guest speaker to help drill down the corporate messages and inspire the troops.
I have attended many of these events, and they are always excellent!
And then… everyone goes back home and sooner or later (usually sooner…) things pretty much go back to the way they were before – politics, silos, blame, infighting, victim mentality… yada, yada, yada. The slogans remain slogans and the reality remains reality.
What a dismal predicament!
Why does this happen?
Is it inevitable?
It is not that the slogans are flawed or that those who are presenting them don’t genuinely believe them. It’s also not that those who are receiving the messages aren’t listening or they don’t care.
The reason is – executives focus too much on the content and they don’t focus on the context inside which the content is being received, assimilated, and implemented.
What determines if the slogans will remain slogans or if they will change and/or become reality is the context inside which people absorb, interact, behave and perform.
For example, at a different event I attended the CEO stood in front of her entire sales team and asked everyone to take full ownership of the company goals. She urged everyone to not be afraid to bring issues up and do whatever it takes to fix them in order to succeed. She even showed a slide with an up-side-down organization chart that had the CEO on the bottom and the sales employees on the top – I have seen leaders use that trick several times. She accompanied this with: “I am at the bottom of the pyramid. My role is to remove barriers and help you win. I work for you…” However, this same CEO and some of her executives were known for micro managing the day-to-day, including things like scrutinizing people’s expense sheets and giving them a hard time when they overspent on customer related activities.
I am sure the CEO meant every word she said on stage. However, anyone with a healthy sense of reality knows that no one in the audience took her comments seriously. In fact, people rolled their eyes, looked at each other and whispered cynically: “Whatever…”
While the CEO wanted to deepen ownership and commitment, her comment and more importantly her lack of awareness of the perceptions people had about her and her team, actually weakened it. She was too focused on getting the management text book messages right, rather than on how people would perceive and receive them.
This CEO is no different from so many others I have seen. Executives think that they can stand on a stage once or twice a year and say all the fancy slogans with gusto, and then go back to micro managing the day-to-day, and that will drive change. Nothing is further from reality!
If the CEO wants to create a new culture of “Transparency”, “Honesty”, “Courage” and “Winning Together” he or she has to make this a priority as high as achieving the revenues or profitability numbers of the company. He has to invest and put in place the same robust programs, routines, incentives and practices to continuously promote, foster, reward, nurture and sustain the desired behaviors. Elevating your team culture is a process/journey, not an event. That is not a slogan!
Peter Drucker, the great business management guru, once said: “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast.” Believe me, that is not a slogan. It is the inevitable reality, that for some reason many CEOs, even if they understand it and can repeat the slogan, still don’t seem to get and adhere to.