If it has, you know it is time to act – quickly!
Recently, we were invited to present to the management of a large, global corporation. Although the company is currently doing well, financially, the executive board wanted to initiate a culture shift with the goal to strengthen the emotional engagement of the team. There was no clear indication that employees weren’t engaged, however, the executives recognized the need to change as a response to the shifting values in our society. Their point: People are asking for more genuine, authentic and meaningful connections – both to their colleagues as well as to organizations they are involved with.
Essentially, the executives stated: “Our employees are loyal and happy. But we would like them to have deeper conversation that allow for more controversy, so they can improve and learn from each other.” Preparing for our presentation, we interviewed about two dozen individuals involved with the company: employees, executives, customers, even individuals that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the organization but had a distinct opinion from following the company in the news. After only a few interviews it became clear that the company was suffering from what I call a “Stonehenge Structure” – that every department, even groups within a department, were quasi-isolated from other departments, and that the few hundred upper managers had become a group on itself, positioned squarely on top of the individual departments.
People from different departments were obviously communicating in meetings and strategy sessions, but without any honest and meaningful information or input exchanged. Everybody was tiptoeing around. Departments held their information, insights and opinions close to the vest, and so they were all getting along just fine – at least that’s how it appeared to the executives of the firm. Upon closer examination, however, it turned out that the majority of the people we interviewed were deeply frustrated about the situation, even about working at the company. Their typical statement: “I have to watch every word I say. That’s really frustrating.” In addition, the upper management team – the square rock on the top – had become a group in itself, disconnected to what’s really going on in the minds of their employees.
“Aside from the frustration and building disengagement”, we asked our interviewees, “how many ideas – how much innovation and synergies do you think are lost as a result of this structure?” Their estimate: between 25% and 50% of the company’s potential. Coincidence? Guesswork? Maybe a case specific to this organization? Possible, but I don’t think so. Even if only a fraction of the estimated potential is lost as a result of this structure, it’s time to act – quickly – before high-performers are looking elsewhere for opportunities. As a matter of fact, we received calls after our presentation from executives that were indeed dissatisfied with the situation that they were already looking for a new job.
How can we change the Stonehenge Structure?
Obviously, it is very difficult to move the standing rocks (the departments) without moving the top rock (the structure of the upper management). Without changing the top rock, first, we’re signing up for a serious challenge. But imagine the top rock breaking its structure and turning into molasses or water, filling the gaps between the standing rocks. This would create a strong unit without an immediate need to move the standing rocks (meaning without the need to change perceptions and behaviors of each employee). Ultimately, building a strong company culture may well require moving the standing rocks, but I believe that the first step must be to move the top rock (the upper management).
What does this top-management change entail? First and foremost genuine interactions and a true care for people. No fake interest. Genuine, authentic connections that break the “we-and-them-paradigm”, and which instead enable truthful and honest conversations. Upon presented to the executives of above mentioned corporation, we learned that the CEO had recently pursued “direct interaction with sales people and customers”. Turns out that his driver took him to one of their sales outlets in town. Meanwhile, I kept thinking about Zappos, the internet shoe retailer that’s known for its unique company culture and customer service, and wondered why their leadership team hasn’t turned into a Stonehenge Structure. Maybe because Zappos requires every new employee – from sales rep to top executive – to work the customer service phone lines for several weeks before they step into their “real” roles within the company.