A few years back, I worked with a technology company. The founder and CEO, Jim, was a brilliant guy.
He designed software for the financial services industry and he was very successful. Customers came knocking on his door and his company grew quickly. As a leader, however, he was a little rough around the edges. He could be hard on his people. Everyone knew his intentions were good though, so it didn’t bother them that much.
By the time I was brought in to build a leadership program, the company was struggling. New competitors had entered the market and the company’s software was dated. In talking to employees in the company, I learned that the product development staff never communicated to those in marketing while marketing people never talked to their counterparts in sales.
Success had made them lazy and complacent. Sales leaders were in the field promising release dates for new versions of the software, creating customer demand for a product that nobody was building.
It was an absolute mess. “How did these leaders let it get this bad?” I thought to myself.
The leadership forums I designed and ran were difficult meetings. The leaders only wanted to sit around and blame one another for the company’s problems. They were too focused on their own small silos and weren’t operating as one cohesive company.
When the business was doing well, the dysfunction didn’t seem to matter. Everything was easy and cash kept streaming in. This success, however, had given everybody a false sense of security and a false sense of how good it really was.
The numbers don’t always tell the whole story.
Now that sales were lagging, everyone had noticed the cultural and organizational problems, but nobody knew what to do about them. Jim was at a loss and the other leaders were stressed out, realizing that they were going to have to figure out how to save the company. They were all under great pressure to turn things around but they weren’t responding. They were inept. Indeed, they were helpless.
One day, after another tough meeting with this group, I went to the parking lot and put my laptop and other materials in my car. As I went to shut the trunk, I looked up at the client’s office building. I saw the floors where my client had offices and pictured all those leaders who spent all their time fighting with one another. Then I pictured all the other floors with other companies in that same office building, each one playing out its own self-created drama.
It was only from outside the building that you could see how small those fights were, how much they distracted everyone and how much they got in the way of success. Those leaders created a world for themselves that didn’t work any longer. Yet, they didn’t have the outsider perspective to realize that. They also didn’t recognize they could change their world for the better, just by changing how they behaved, interacted with one another and did their work.
This world is really about the culture of an organization. In my experience as a consultant, I find many organizations have weak leadership cultures.
I have encountered some truly dreadful ones in my travels while others are completely dysfunctional. What’s important to understand is that they are made that way, often by default, because few leaders pay attention to “leadership culture.” And so, they create a world for themselves that doesn’t work.
There are a few truly exceptional leaders, however, who have figured it out. They deliberately build strong leadership cultures in their organizations and I am fortunate to work with a few of them. They show me that leadership culture can be a powerful and positive force in organizations. But it is also fragile. And the moment you stop paying attention to it, it starts to erode.
We all have a choice. We don’t have to put up with uninspiring or toxic leadership cultures. Instead, we can create great ones. But it takes concerted effort to build and sustain them over the long term. It means you must be relentless in keeping the culture strong. It all begins with an aspiration for great leadership.
Think about the world you are working in at your organization. What’s it like? Is it creating an environment that gets the best from you and everyone around you?
One way to gain an interesting perspective is to stand outside of your workplace – it doesn’t matter if it’s a skyscraper in the central business district, a building in an industrial park or a large manufacturing plant – and look at it from a distance. Think about the worlds that are created in neighbouring companies and organizations. Just consider all the daily drama consuming people. These worlds are created, we create them.
Now ask yourself, what can you do to create a better world in which to work and lead?
This week’s gut check for leaders asks: what world are you creating in your company?
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