Category Archives: Organizational Vision

Are you your organization’s ‘poet’?

“We’re going to miss this man, America. Whatever his flaws, he’s been more than our president. Time and again, he’s been our national poet.”

Frank Bruni said this of President Obama in a recent New York Times opinion piece.

It set me thinking.

When unease ripples through your markets, when anxiety overtakes your organization, when your employees are either confused or believe the organization is not going in the right direction, how do you, as a leader, act? How do you energize your team?

Do you take the role of an organization ‘poet’?

Huh, you may ask. But I mean business. Literally and figuratively.

The ‘poet’ leader has a fierce, tough-minded optimism that lifts the spirit of his people. She has deep convictions, is resilient, and battles change and adversity with creative ideas. He creates positive energy in negative environments. She believes in the future and motivates purposeful performance through well thought out optimism.

Before the second ‘huh?’ escapes your lips on the seemingly oxymoronic phrase ‘well thought out optimism’, hit the pause button. There is a simple but powerful flow to this philosophy that lends it its power.

It starts with a vision of success for your organization. It is a conviction that defines something special. It is a passion that inspires others to stand with you. It goes beyond being the best. It makes you want to be the only ones doing something unique, and doing it in the unique way you do.

This philosophy spells uniqueness not as ‘exclusive’ but as ’care’. Colleagues, customers, partners, vendors…they all matter. As does conduct – both as an organizational credo and as traits of its individual representatives. Care and conduct places meaning above efficiency to weave an emotional connect into the fabric of corporate culture.

The flow of this philosophy creatively looks to the future by rediscovering the past. The ‘poet’ acknowledges that the past is a treasure trove of history, which can create momentum and confidence if not looked at with regret. Through rediscovery he ignites innovation in reinventing the future, even as he is consistent in his priorities.

The ‘poet’ thus starts a movement to take on what is possible. He does not debate why it cannot. She changes her organization’s climate in testing times to enrich its culture. They are resilient, not just to bounce back but bounce forward. They develop a unique perspective of the future. In seeing opportunities that others do not, they display both initiative and humility to tap into the collective intelligence and genius in their organizations.

Fittingly, the New York Times article was titled ‘Freedom from Fear’. Amidst challenges, doubts and fears, the poet leader talks calmly, authentically and forcefully about ‘what we can do’. They personally renew themselves to re-energize their employees. That is why the classic line “I have a dream” was a poetic foundation to historic change. Imagine if it had been “I have a fear”!

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I belong. With pride. With purpose.

How does he do it?

I found myself asking this question as I watched him address diverse audiences. He has children, adults, teachers, industrialists and even the apathetic Indian (at home and abroad) involved and roused when they listen to him – and long after too.

Much has been talked and written about Narendra Modi’s speeches and his persona – I am not going to add my tuppence bit to that. But one phenomenal effect that seems to surge in the people he addresses seems to be a good lesson for all organizational leaders.

The pride of belonging.

Excuse me, it says, I am not the rhetoric of happy talk. I am the pride centered on purpose. I beat in the heart of every organization, team and individual. I beg to be tapped from the static company mission statements and brought alive.

Please, it pleads, I am far more profound than being merely appreciated through rewards and recognition programs. I spring from wells deeper than that.

It certainly does.

It is the culmination of the effort, the brainpower and all of the waking hours that people plough into their organizations. They need it to have meaning. They need it to matter.

It is the spirit of the happy people who sling frozen fish at Seattle’s Pike Place Market at slim wages. They want this spirit to find common ground and be part of something bigger than itself. To have an additional pride of membership and connectedness to causes and results that matter.

Belonging in people recognizes the truth that the things they create and craft carry little but sure pieces of their skill, will, heart and soul. For the fire of pride to be lit, the relationship has to be reciprocal. People must feel that they too are transformed in some way by all that they build.

How does this shift the telescope of leadership?

For starters, a considerable U-turn from the Cartesian focus on ‘I think, therefore I am’ to the Ubuntu assertion of ‘I am because you are’. The softness of the latter statement is deceptive, very deceptive. No belief in collective strength can be soft. Any shared intellectual, emotional and psychological power packs a whopping punch!

Two, it also changes leadership’s listening frequency. They need to tune in to their followers’ hopes, expectations and needs with an ethic of service, principles, knowledge, capability and astute alacrity.

Three, their aggression needs to be wise – built on passion, compassion and agility. They need to sense, reflect, resonate and harmonize with their followership.

More than anything else, any leadership can evoke the pride of belonging only if the steward has the moral authority to gain trust and approbation from the people who want to be led. Only if their people respect and appreciate their personhood, not just their persona.

In translating the here and now to their vision of the future, in carrying their people along as they link the organization’s history and destiny, leaders need to make the unerring connection between hope and achievement of their followers. Otherwise the Ubuntu philosophy aptly describes what will happen. ‘Until lions have their own historians, all stories about hunting will glorify the hunter’


I C – do you see?

They outnumber leaders in any organization by a large margin.

They satisfy customers, negotiate with suppliers, create and support innovation and provide the manpower for the most pressing business strategies.

The exceptional ones visibly demonstrate skills in the key high-performance imperatives of influence, personal effectiveness, collaboration, and building stakeholder loyalty.

Yet, we have no clue how to deal with their aspirations. Or more specifically, their non-aspiration to become the much-hyped leader!

I am referring to the Individual Contributor.

Of all the irritating stereotypes, this is the most destructive in an organization. We are apologetic at best, and disdainful at worst to this least understood, most valued and hopelessly misused group.

Question. Should we only think about advancing the careers of such individuals by moving them into manager positions? And then do them a disservice by confusedly asserting that they do not have leadership skills to be there, when we are the ones with blinkers on?

Today is an era of flat organizational structures to reduce costs and get more nimble. Management positions are getting fewer and rarer – so let us say thanks to the numerous professionals who opt for individual contributor roles. And recognize and salute the strengths they bring to the organization.

Individual contributors hold the key and wield tremendous influence on how an organization realizes its business strategy or sinks in its underperformance. Many of them will step up effortlessly to informal leadership roles, managing parts of a process, function or workgroup, and the high performers will be the ‘make-or-break’ stitch with their unique expertise.

Is it possible to be both an individual contributor and a leader? I would say “Yes.” And “YES”!

Let us see. What are the broad leadership competencies we tout and shout about?

Maintaining effectiveness in leading and dealing with change?

The individual superman does this everyday in his work responsibilities and environment. She adjusts efficiently to work within new work structures, processes, requirements, and cultures. But of course, they do not trumpet it in status reports.

 Taking accountability for customer loyalty?

She exceeds customer needs by building productive relationships. Clients stake their continued relationship with an organization based on his very presence.

 Engage stakeholders to make them understand, accept and retain critical messages?

He clearly conveys information and ideas through a variety of media to diverse stakeholders in a manner that convinces critical audiences for their voluntary buy-in. She personably and inspiringly influences her team toward the completion of goals.

Conceptualize strategic solutions, and display execution excellence to successfully close the last mile?

The individual star anticipates, identifies and understands both challenges and opportunities. She brilliantly culls data from different sources to draw conclusions and make efficient decisions. He factors facts, constraints, and probable consequences with telling precision.

Draw a meticulous roadmap for oneself and slot the stakeholders’ roles for successful closure of goals and objectives?

Our individual topper is very aware that he can shine only if he opens the canals of collaboration. And she does so with a sure belief in teamwork.

The conviction and responsibility must come from both sides. Individuals must believe in and explore ways to build credibility through developing expertise, demonstrating values, and articulating a vision. Organization leadership should  move out of its comfort zone to provide ‘feel-proud’ career advancement opportunities to such key individuals through credible specialist and expert ranks.

The traits of well-rounded and integrated leadership are a fine balance of essence and form. It matters not if my role is that of an individual contributor or a manager to demonstrate both character (essence) and competence (form). Peter Drucker’s incisive insight on this may well be our lodestar. “Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, and raising performance to a higher standard”


Enter…the corporate artist

“An arts degree is now perhaps the hottest credential in the world of business.”  So quoted Harvard Business Review a few years back.

Interesting don’t you think? Dare we imagine organization leadership to be as much a stage for artists as for management executives?

Think about it. Is there really an unbridgeable gap between what can be imagined and what can be accomplished? Can not the artistic idealism of originality complement and prevail over the hard-nosed pragmatism of replicating past patterns?

‘Create value’, scream managers, organizations and various business summits. The bugles call for greater creativity, commitment and innovation in the business domain.

But wait! Aren’t these what artists do – and do well? Suddenly, the dots seem to be already joined.

Take strategists and coaches. They exhort their members to set and manage unreasonable expectations. To an artist, this business parlance echoes her courage to make her leaps without a safety net.

Take the mantra of innovation that sweeps across the business landscape today. It acknowledges the truth that viable path-breaking options need to be invented, not replicated or tinkered for difference. To an artist, it resonates the assertive message he practises. Move over, traditionalists – make way for my bold brush patterns of creativity!

Or look at the confidence of discontinuous and disruptive change that laughingly threatens the established practice of continuous improvement to define business success. This is what the creative artist does. No incremental enhancements for him He goes beyond re-jigging the how. She invents a new what.

The truth is, creativity and innovation are design efforts, not analytical tasks. And they are the ‘raison d’etre’ of artists. Maybe it is time for organizations to encourage artistic powers of their employees that they have hitherto been unwelcoming of. Maybe they should allow their artists to exercise the indiscipline of ‘out-of-the-box’ thoughts and actions without the burden of collecting evidence to bail themselves out.

Collaborative teamwork. What corporate professionals strive so hard to make a science of, an ensemble of artists transforms it effortlessly into a spellbinding masterpiece. It is interesting to know that even as early as 2003, Sloan Leadership courses at MIT had arts-based components, including ‘Leadership as Acting: Performing Henry V’. University of Chicago’s leadership exploration and development course has MBAs create and showcase a film. Wharton’s MBA program has a compulsory workshop on “Leadership through the Arts” facilitated by an internationally acclaimed dance company.

And what about the ability to improvise? To respond to unpredictable problems and opportunities as they arise? Artists unfold spontaneity in stepping both up and down to rein in individual brilliance from overshadowing collective success. And in doing so, they create a sure atmosphere of trust that each is looking out for the other and the team.

Yes, it is time for the corporate artist to step up and be allowed to step up. What can be a better vote of confidence for this claim than the following endorsements by two successful business stewards?

“You need to let the artists explore and create the next great thing, which they will do reliably if you permit it.”

Eric Schmidt, Chairman & CEO, Google

“Creativity is the one irreplaceable human skill in an increasingly automated world . . . the only sustainable source of competitive advantage.”

                                                                                                                                           Ivan G. Siedenberg, former Chairman & CEO, Verizon


Gendered individuals? Or collective strength?

According to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and author of ‘Lean In’, the 3 biggest mistakes women make in the workplace are (a) not sitting at the table and speaking up (b) not making their partners real partners at home and (c) leaving before they should leave, being worried about balancing careers and families.

Mistakes? Are they just that? Can they not be viewed as choices?

And why should gender play a role here at all?

Man or woman, if anyone wants a possible best of two worlds, they give some and take some. The two worlds can be any two vocations – and one of them could very well be home, friends, hobbies and family. Can he determine that the ROI on his work effort does not meet his expectations and aspirations? Can she sensibly see after-hour ‘demands’ as demands, and not glorified opportunities?

There is a feeling that not enough attention is being given to gender in the professional scene. On the other hand, I believe we give too much attention to the wrong aspects of gender and its attendant issues of equality. By keeping arguments gender agnostic, we would be doing lesser disservice to human issues.

Agreed, equity and human rights in the workplace are critically important. Violation of rights, unfairness, bias and prejudices must be shunned and brought to book. But all of these transcend gender and must be viewed and countered so.

Imbalance in representation of any kind, including gender, should be introspected for sound reasons – is this an inefficient and counterproductive squandering of critical resources? Have we, as an organization, failed to maximize our available assets? Have we fallen short of putting the absolutely best players into positions where they can maximize results? All other considerations that are not work-related should be removed from the equation.

The delectable irony is that while organizations aim for peak efficiency and excellence, the people who run them are fallible. As easily as they can be innovative and drive execution to success, they can botch things up by ignorance (and the denial of it) and a meaningless imitation of behaviors and attitudes of perceptions of success. And this is a major reason we grapple cluelessly on the gender issue at the workplace.

Different people use different strokes to be truly present in their lives. And no one has it all anyway. Every day, we turn away from options, dreams and opportunities, both professional and personal – some because we cannot do them, some because we do not want to do them. And some, we go all out to ‘have it all’.

In so doing, the elevator to the top floor may not be the most meaningful journey or choice. So be it. The boardroom may not be the ultimate pot of gold. So be it. For success and trophies have no meaning unless they are what we really want. No stories of sour grapes this, but let us respect the choices of people, who choose to be or not to be. Let us not rush to bring in gender inequality here – unless there really is.

As organizations, the best way to eliminate gender-based misconceptions is to inculcate a more mature viewpoint in all members, so that employees are viewed not as gendered individuals but as a valuable collective strength.

Life is inherently unfair and there is no magic wand to wave it away. But that is no reason why we cannot, as individuals and management representatives, create a workplace where labor and integrity will be recognized and rewarded, and where good men and women will flock to work in. And maybe, over time, we can raise the bar to an accepted common sense that it is totally unnecessary to discuss the role of gender at work.


Add meaning to engage?

Some say it is about creating a vision that everyone feels part of. It is about understanding what motivates them, say others. Hmm…says the practical cynic, it is only about making sure the way people behave supports your organizational revenue goals, velvet-gloved as values.

Employee Engagement. Everyone hears the buzz, but is it the honey they taste or the sting they feel? Statistics further spice up discussions. Only 14 to 30 percent of employees are engaged at work, screams a survey – and we have dozens of extrapolations of how much more productive organizations can be if engagement went up by even 5 percentage points.

Fad or truth, fluff or real, it begs attention. Not the jargon-coated icing but the plain vanilla.

How do we spark the “wanting-a-life-that-counts” enthusiasm in the employees who spend roughly 1/3 of the hours they are alive at work? For, at the core, all of us want to have an impact on people and situations that touch our lives.

The responsibility starts at the top, without a doubt. The leadership team must be engaged themselves; they must be role models for this behavior with their direct reports—who then do the same for their teams. For supervisors, managers and leaders, this must light a fire under their chairs to make work more meaningful for those they work with.

The stark truth in today’s business scene – and this is to be taken with no inciting emotion – is that loyalty cannot be rewarded the way it was in the past. That career progress is a spiral and not a ladder. The good news is that the ‘more-with-less’ credo is understood and agreed on both sides of the table.

The paycheck, the bonuses and other rewards…these are driven by revenue and budgets, as they should be. Let us go beyond tying the incompatible knot between genuine meaning at work and monetary rewards.   How can organizational leadership add motivation based on the employees’ roles themselves?

For starters, can leaders creatively design a role-based model that explains employee engagement starting with the end goal in mind? Most organizations have a model that splits an employee’s role into core (what is in the job description) and non-core but value added competencies. Can each leader understand his business well enough to make the roles of the ‘innovator’, ‘the career developer’ and ‘the organizational team member’ roles more exciting for his members? Visibility, respect, acknowledgment and recognition for skills beyond the core job competencies are powerful motivators that tap into the longing to make contributions beyond oneself. They are happier and more excited when they are successful in both roles.

Within the everyday status quo, leaders can opt for a fair number of possibilities – deliberate responsibility rotation, opening channels of learning, increasing opportunities for direct interaction with customers and senior leadership, open decision-making, wise deployment of individual, cluster and mass communication, artful and timely positive and corrective feedback…

For the organization too, this translates into tangible benefits.

Employees, when part of a team that develops company-specific knowledge, become assets who understand, with pride and depth, the culture and objectives of the organization. They engage in behaviors that support the organization instead of their own jobs and these behaviors bring high value to productivity.

But like I said, it has to start above. Leaders need to walk the talk – confused, distracted and dejected leaders kill employee engagement. They need to, with clarity and conviction, articulate how each role helps support the business goals and strategy. They must provide meaning, support and pride for the value-added roles.

This may then set a better context and direction for employee engagement and lend better value for the time, effort and money invested in initiatives in this area.