Eric was the CEO of a large international organization. He was hired private equity groups and hired by the board to help align the businesses internally and with market demand, and to grow with a potential divestiture of the business at some point in the not too distant future.
Among the many initiatives he asked senior leaders to implement were more frequent internal communications—a newsletter but also town halls broadcast simultaneously to all offices with scripted Q&A sessions (people had to send in questions in advance)—and more customers and partner meetings.
In addition to bringing in his own team, the CEO also decided the company needed to get re-energized and engaged with its mission. With senior leaders and consultants, he clocked time to work on new mission and vision statements to roll out to the organization.
If this all sounds good, it's because many other leaders and teams have done the same when looking to turn around the business. With a notable difference—smart companies involved employees in the process, and not just as consumers of information. Many of the tenured teams at the organization had been there for several years, themselves often the result of a merger or acquisition—outsiders becoming insiders.
Eric and his team of senior executives and consultants lived the experience of what the company delivered customers and internal dynamics only from a specific point of view. As business leaders they were also keen on following best practices rather than uncovering the most practice the business that was their responsibility to steward already had.
It didn't even occur to the group in the room brainstorming specific keywords they wanted to include in each statement of mission, vision, and values that a brand is both the product of the experience it provides and its consistent behaviors, which form culture. Instead, statements from competitors and admired brands became the baseline inspiration with the CEO writing the final statements with minor contributions from the rest.
The result was a frankenpastiche of words popular among the management consulting crowd and the analyst community that did not reflect the unique story and meaningful contributions the organization made to employees, customers, partners, and the business community.
Culture trumps strategy
Superimposed management consulting best practices do not hold up to existing habits. Culture defines a lot of things in organizations. How problems are tackled, priorities, rewards, and thus behaviors. “You don't create a culture,” say Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansoon in Rework:
“Instant cultures are artificial cultures. They're big bangs made of mission statements, declarations, and rules. They are obvious, ugly, and plastic. Artificial culture is paint. Real culture is patina.”
Culture is a living thing. It happens as the by-product of consistent behavior and influences how we make decisions. What we talk about, how we go about doing things and making decisions are all aspects of culture. The word itself is based on a term used by Ancient Roman orator Cicero to describe the cultivation of the philosophical soul, considered the highest form of human development.
Before looking to change how we talk about an organization, and how we behave, it's helpful to understand the why of existing behaviors and communications, respect the brand and its people. Then, act on the underlying policies, rules, rewards, incentives, and business constraints that drive behavior.
One of the unintended consequences of Eric and his senior executives working on statements the way they did was to provide the rank and file an additional clue as to how things were going to run from here on. All the communications said one thing, but the experience employees and customers had was very different.
The turnaround did not happen within the time frame investors had in mind—they hired a new CEO and leadership team.
Ownership shifts culture
When we invited Mike Abrashoff to speak as part of a professional gathering in 2002, we were all familiar with his experience turning around a ship as big as the USS Benfold. Abrashoff was the Commander of the ship for twenty months beginning June 1997. Fast Company wrote an article about his story. The article became popular very quickly and left people wanting for more... hence It's Your Ship: Management Techniques form the Best Damn Ship in the Navy.
In 1997, the Benfold was drowning under the weight of outdated policies, poor morale, and an unimpressive performance record. Twenty months later, the ship won the prestigious Spokane Trophy for having the best combat readiness in the fleet. Abrashoff's why—his aim—was to focus on purpose rather than on chain of command.
“In most organizations today, ideas still come from the top. Soon after arriving at this command, I realized that the young folks on this ship are smart and talented. And I realized that my job was to listen aggressively — to pick up all of the ideas that they had for improving how we operate. The most important thing that a captain can do is to see the ship from the eyes of the crew.”
The chief is responsible to figure out the experience from the front lines. A story related by a colleague recently about a CEO in Japan who made a very bad decision. He wasn't fired. Instead, he was given by the board a janitor's role in his own company with the equivalent pay grade and the task to re-learn about the company's business. He worked his way up through a few roles before being reinstated as CEO.
This is essentially what Abrashoff did. He stood in line with the crew and waited his turn for meals, he took the time to speak with the people manning the various parts of the ship, and solicited ideas about how to make improvements. Then he listened. In our conversation, he also explained that people do watch what senior leaders do. In his case, they looked at his calendar for clues as to what he actually did do.
It takes a while to build trust, but when you walk the talk, things have a way of happening faster. Abrashoff also managed up. He discovered that to create change without asking he would also have to put himself in the shoes of his boss, “what so I want from Abrashoff and Benfold?” he asked. Meeting operational commitments to start, and under budget, “while achieving a high morale and a high retention rate.” Taking calculated risks and focused on good bets to deliver on those.
In addition to communicating meaning and purpose and creating a climate of trust, he took other steps that leaders and managers should take note of—he promoted the organization and not himself, looked for results and not salutes, listened aggressively, went beyond standard procedures, built up his people, generated unity, and improved his people's quality of life.
When people feel they matter, when they believe what they are doing is important, discipline goes up, and so does energy.
It's Your Ship is an empowering message. Listening and following through to what people say can and does turn 8,300 tons of steel armed with the world's most advanced computer-controlled combat system into a model of efficiency and respect thanks to 300 highly skilled, totally committed people.
[I still have the hat]