How do you train 21st Century (C21L) leaders to face the truth, or more poignantly the truths in their organisation, the un-sanitized, varied, complex perspectives that abound across the layers of authority? Those in power at senior levels tend to be insulated from what is going on at street level. Creating a kind of short-circuit, so that those in power are less isolated from this ground level experience, is a real advantage in any business. But how do we create a programme of learning where that can happen?
The need to engage with this truth has become more urgent – a greater value is now attached to freedom of information, and the social network makes it everyone’s right, for good or ill, to form and express an opinion, boosted by the opportunity to publish it through social media and blogging. Far from this being a disadvantage to leaders, how can they use the social networking technologies that are available to us now to help engage with these truths?
The Chief Executive picked up the post-it note and her faced paled slightly. It read: “Our Chief Executive doesn’t always practice what she preaches.” Standing next to her, I said, “This is good news. A chance for you to show you are listening.” She nodded, slightly stiffly, and placed it back on the ‘feedback wall’. Later on, I heard her say, in a breakout session to a small, mixed group of colleagues, that “even though it’s hard, it is really useful when we’re talking about culture change to know what people really think about you”. My heart went out to her. She was clearly stung by those words. Yet in that moment, she rose above her own reactions, and the impact on those around her was galvanising. An open, energised and useful discussion ensued about who really takes responsibility for the future of the business; about who ‘lives the values’, and how do we make this happen at all levels. This was a moment of courage and learning, and in this sense the truth was enabling.
‘The first casualty of war is the truth.’ This quote, believed to be from U.S. Senator Hiram Warren Johnson, in 1918, may be apocryphal, but it is food for thought, nonetheless. The Senator was referring to the experience that, in the heat of battle, an inherent human tendency is exacerbated: to put forward our own biased views of what is going on. In the context of leading organisations in the 21st Century, we take this proposition a bit further, and say that the first casualty of power is the truth.
This isn’t a criticism of leaders – it is just that they occupy a different world to those who connect daily with the customers – ‘Topspace’ as Barry Oshry calls it. Topspace is a rarefied world; a world full of the burden of responsibility for the bigger picture. It is a lying-awake-in-bed-at-night world, thinking, ‘Is it only me who is bothered about where this is all going?’ That is the truth of this Topspace experience, which you might notice, tends to focus on the future, away from what is happening now, on the shop floor.
Ultimately, those who occupy Topspace are ordinary people (no matter how much they are paid) who have a limited capacity for retaining information – so the what they notice is selective, and often lacks the colour and flavour of the front line, where the business meets the customer. This has been leeched out by the levels of filtering between them and places of real, flesh-and-blood contact.
Of course, it may be very hard for senior people to work with the truth – there are real risks. To be entrusted with the future wellbeing of a business and its people and customers is an awesome responsibility. Then to then find that you are making mistakes, getting it wrong or just don’t know what to do is very uncomfortable; to be exposed as vulnerable in that way is frightening for everyone. Yet without that willingness to face reality, the chances of success are reduced and the risks of mistakes are increased.
Those who do this filtering aren’t being deliberately pernicious either, although the effect of it can be. It is just that the consequences of relaying this everyday, red-in –tooth-and-claw experience of what is going on at the frontline can be detrimental to their career, or so they fear.
So when we are talking about a truth that Senior Leaders are insulated from, what do we really mean? The truth in this context could be a number of things: what your customers really experience, what your staff really think, what’s said about you - your ‘legend’ – that is, before you’ve walked into a room, what is the gossip around the corridors about what you are ‘really’ like, including the consequences of being open and honest with you.
These ‘enabling truths’ can also be practical and technical – about how ‘things are done round here’, not just in terms of human culture, to paraphrase Edgar Schein, but in terms of how the widgets are made and managed. These are also things that those who inhabit ‘Topspace’ don’t get to hear much about. The real everyday product or service of a company is very often just a digit on the report in front of them. But they have to get closer to the noise and smell of the machinery if they are to catch a glimpse of the enabling truth; much closer.
I had a good example of this with a large drinks manufacturing client. The new Supply Chain Director, by all accounts a breath of fresh air, was looking for ways of simplifying production, particularly with regard to packaging, because the factory was undergoing a revamp of its bottling and canning facilities and she wanted to see if she could reduce complexity so they could install new packaging plant, without a break of supply to customers. But she was frustrated by endless debates that went round and round, and she had an abiding sense that each person she encountered on this problem was subtly, perhaps even unconsciously, pushing their own agenda.
So she gathered as many people as she could, at all levels in a room with and put all the various styles of bottles and cans that were being currently used on the table in front of them, and invited as many of those who had other roles, including those with direct customer facing experience to join them. Together, they spent a day talking, arguing, chatting and debating, picking bottles up, holding cans sideways and generally mulling together about which of all the stuff in front of them they could do without for a while. “It was amazing”, she said to me, “because previously everyone had told me it was someone else who objected to getting rid of certain packages, and when we got them all in a room together, many of those positions just evaporated. I thought about all of those meetings where people had said various things couldn’t be done, where I had heard various things told to me as the truth, but I held my tongue, and kept my cool on that! In the end, we had reduced the number of different packaging units from 200 to 50. This saved us a lot. We also realised we didn’t just need to cut this down for the interim period. We could get rid of many of those units for good. We’d never had realized that if we hadn’t have talked that long and openly with each other. So some of those savings were permanent.”
This story suggest a number of things about how we get at these enabling truths:
- It suggests that these truths lie between the layers, and that breaking the barriers down between the layers matters.
- This is an archly political skill - in facilitating the breaking down of barriers, leaders take a risk; opening a ‘can of worms’, which others may hold against them.
- There are good, rational reasons why people avoid and disguise and defend. To protect themselves (or others) from threat, damage, loss, blame, rejection – leaders need to learn the courage to deal with, rather than be driven by, these primal responses to uncertainty and lack of control.
- These dynamics work in all directions and we all play our part. The packaging plant manager may have thought he might be doing the salesman a favour by arguing for or against a particular unit. It is only when they spend this time together ironing out the wrinkles that the enabling truth emerges, between them as it were.
- It isn’t only the Seniors, those in Topspace who are subjected to this filtering process, although their power-distance may make it worse. Everyone tends to get a filtered view, biased to the agenda of a particular department or team.
- Needless to say improving communication helps, but that may not be enough in itself. Those in Senior Positions have to embody an openness to uncertainty and allow the truths to emerge.
- The opportunities unleashed through enabling truths may be unpredictable, and this challenges the traditional, top down strategizing of traditional leadership. Note the fact that by solving one problem collectively, they actually solved another, bigger one, without expecting to.
- Facilitating enabling truths may be both a technical and an intra-personal skill of the leader, as well as an inter-personal skill – note how it has aspects of a practical, nuts and bolts quality and also how most leaders facilitating the enabling truth have to bite their lip or hold their tongue at some point!
Ultimately, the leaders, like the Supply Chain Director, must be able to deal with being brought face to face with the practical implications of decisions that seem to make sense from on high but just don’t make sense when you are delivering to the customer. These leaders have to learn to be less defensive, and more interested in systematically putting mechanisms into the system where they can access the truth.
These systems need to be elegant, flexible, and as un-ritualized as possible. It’s a process that needs careful maintenance. I once worked with a company where, in half-hearted realization of the need for enabling truths, they instigated an ‘Exec on Tour’, whereby the Top Team would regularly go and visit manufacturing sites across the business. Early on, this approach had a freshness to it, but after a while of timetabled, highly staged events, it was clear to everyone that this was all becoming a bit of a farce, and indeed an expensive waste of everyone’s time. Like the Queen, whenever they arrived, the metaphorical smell of new paint was detected. This isn’t nearly good enough. Indeed it suggests that whatever a business does to enable truths to flow across its synapses, the less a formulaic approach, the more fresh these truths will be.
There may be a specific opportunity afforded by Social Networking in facilitating enabling truths. Imagine the CEO who is open to hearing the tweets of front line customer facing employees, who know that the CEO may be watching and aren’t afraid of the consequences. The opportunity for immediate, powerful learning and feedback requires both technical acuity and an intra-and inter-personal on behalf of both boss and employee.
We are developing a programme where leadership skills are taught specifically to deal with the proliferation of enabling truths. It is an action-learning programme, that works alongside leaders, to develop their ability to be resilient and absorb the risks of opening up the layers. It skills them to curate environments where people feel safe to say what needs to be said.
Much of this boils down to the cultivation of courage. This programme enables leaders to deal with the interpersonal and internal turbulence felt when truths, both technical and emotional, are aired and dealt with. And it supports them to do this through engagement with the social network, via twitter, and through blogs that people want to read that blow a breath of fresh air through the Company.
There’s a scene in the film The Matrix, where the hero is offered two pills – a red one and a blue one. The blue one puts everything back in place, neat and simple, and the red one opens the door to the truth: unpredictable, frightening, irritatingly complex, yet ultimately liberating. Leaders have a choice. Which pill will they take?