Up ahead is the proverbial road to business success.
It’s a narrow road, flanked by a constantly changing landscape. There are potholes, steep drop-offs at the edge, and sharp turns that hide what’s coming next.
Luckily, you’re on a bus.
It’s a big bus, with everyone on your team seated exactly where they should be, gazing out the windows. The driver seems to be doing a great job. You haven’t veered into the opposite lane (much). No one has fallen out, and everyone is traveling to the same destination on that bus.
This is how you get down the road to success, right? You get the right people on the business bus heading in the same direction. No matter what pops up on the road ahead, you have a bus full of people ready to meet the challenge because they’re in the right seat—and you’re certainly the right driver.
If that’s working for you, you must be on the Who’s magic bus because this doesn’t happen in the real world. A group of passive bus passengers isn’t going to contribute much to a productive culture. They’re just along for the ride.
Consider that these bus passengers don’t have a map out, suggesting a better route. They’re not ponying up information on whether you should slow down or speed up. They don’t even have to agree with one another. They just get taken someplace by the driver, the only one who’s really paying attention to where everyone is going. The only things aligned on this bus are the tires.
As the driver, you’re not too keen on this arrangement, either, because you’re under a ton of pressure to make the right decisions. Get everyone lost, and you’ll hear lots of opinions from the passengers after the fact. Ask for feedback while driving, and you’ll end up swerving off the road under the deluge of suggestions. After all, every passenger on that bus probably has their own way to get to where everyone is supposed to be going.
American author Jim Collins popularized the ubiquitous “bus” model in his book Good To Great. While I like a lot of what Collins has to say, this comparison was a swing and a miss. For 30 years, I’ve seen it lead to confusion, confrontation, and disagreement.
So, what’s a better way to analogize a business, its team, and you, the fearless leader?
What if you thought of your business as a sweep rowing team?
If you’ve got your five-member executive team sweep rowing, and one person isn’t coordinating with the rest, decides not to row for a bit, or has an oar tilted just a little differently, the boat goes off course. You’re no longer pointed in the direction you all want to go. You either have an aligned rowing team, or a wandering boat at the mercy of the current.
Bus or boat? Passive or active? Skewed individuals or an aligned team?
You can build a well-oiled, aligned organization that’s wildly profitable, completely positive, and a magnet for talent. At my advisory firm, Vertical Elevation, we call this a Talent-Centric Organization, or a TCO.
If you’re not a TCO, what are you? Your organization can be centered on a lot of different things, but talent is the one that matters. Anything else, and you’ll deal with constant recruitment issues, product failure, talent loss, and everything that comes with building an ineffective team.
The Three Basic Principles of a TCO
If you’re going to become a TCO, you must follow three basic principles.
First, focus on your people. Absolutely everything you do must focus on driving better experiences for people. That includes your team, users, customers, and community.
It can be easy to focus on the customer experience because it’s so obviously tied to revenue and provides more immediate feedback. But the employee experience is just as important as the customer experience. In fact, the employee experience drives the customer experience. If you ignore it, your customers will eventually feel it.
Second, build diverse teams that don’t suffer from groupthink. A diverse team brings many strengths to the table in talent, experience, and contextual understanding.
I often ask clients about their company’s gender and cultural makeup. I don’t do it just to check off boxes. I do it to determine the level of groupthink and how it’s affecting the company. Groupthink gets you nowhere, fast.
When everyone comes from the same background, there’s only one understanding of how to do things, and more unwitting mistakes can be made in record time. Multicultural and diverse teams automatically have more solutions to choose from. Build these teams, then empower them.
Many leaders throw “empowered” around as a useful buzzword or a key to their mission statement, but they struggle to actually put it into practice internally. Empowered employees are able to take initiative. They have a say, they can participate, and they can make decisions. They have permission to take risks and innovate.
Finally, you have to shift how you think and, therefore, how you work. The learning process has no endpoint. It’s continuous, and it means you have to be willing to learn new things, be able to communicate with your team, and be open to change.
Part of the empowerment puzzle is tied to whether leadership is open to change. Leaders who are detached or unwilling to change create a team rowing out of sync, sending their sweep boat spinning in every direction but forward.
If you want to create an organization that truly empowers people, you need a cultural feedback loop where employees can tell you what they don’t like, trusting that what they say won’t come back to bite them down the road.
Think of a tree growing out the side of a cliff. It’s not an ideal place to grow. It’s rocky and gravity is eager to wreak havoc. But the tree still pulls it off and grows up toward the sun. It knows it’s either going to grow both its roots and canopy, or it’ll plummet to the bottom of the valley floor.
Obstacles don’t stop growth; they merely reroute it. Organizations that grasp this aren’t trying to make it happen; they’re making it happen. They’re as committed as the tree, shifting how they work and think.
Are you willing to even consider if you need to make a change?
Will you actually make that change if you see the need?
If you’re not willing, gravity has you firmly in its grasp, and it will pull you down.
Written by Carol Schultz.
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The Emotionally Strong Leader: Building Effective And Collaborative Workplace Relationships by Carolyn Stern.
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The Five Steps for Having Tough Conversations by Gerard Penna.
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