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Thoughts from the Field - Issue #10 - Capitalizing on Clarity

By CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke

Capitalizing on Clarity

The primary reason leaders and organizations have reached out to Table Group Consulting has been because they recognize themselves as having some type of team dysfunction. Pat’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, has been a best-selling business book for years and, certainly, we spend considerable time consulting on teamwork.

As compelling as the team model is in providing a practical framework for addressing team-related issues, some of the most tangible, transformational moments during our off-sites occur when we address something we call organizational clarity. Creating alignment at the executive level is essential to building and maintaining a healthy organization. There is probably no greater frustration for employees than having to navigate the politics and confusion caused by leaders who are misaligned. Even the slightest bit of daylight between executive team members can have an overwhelming impact on employees below.

As consultants, we provoke leadership teams to answer the six critical questions we believe are essential for organizational clarity.

The Six Critical Questions

Pat dives into the six questions in more detail in his new release, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. In short, they include:

  • Why do we exist? Beyond making money
  • What do we do? A non-sexy description, mostly verbs about what we do
  • How will we behave? Behavioral norms or core values – few in number and which represent the DNA of leaders and star performers
  • How will we succeed? Directional anchors that are simple and allow all levels of the organization to know how to make the best decisions.
  • What’s most important, right now? A rallying cry or a thematic goal (qualitative in nature) that when accomplished collectively, will significantly advance the company
  • Who does what? Roles and responsibilities

Like many of Pat’s models, these questions may appear simple on the surface, but they can be difficult to answer and adhere to. These questions need to be wrestled with for some time in order to arrive at answers that are true and meaningful to the organization. The answers provide context and a framework for making decisions for executives and employees alike.

Most executives think they can answer the six questions easily, but more often than not, executives will find themselves on different pages from one another. Discrepancies in clarity, left unaddressed, can leave employees confused as to where to spend their time, how to behave and how to successfully go about doing their work.

Answering the Questions

When we work with leadership teams, diving into answering the six questions leads to plenty of healthy debate. Often leadership teams want to pull out old documents with vision, mission and values fully articulated. We discourage this approach. Instead, we suggest team members simply sit around the table, write down their answers, and then go around the room and listen to each other’s ideas. Some discussion is usually needed to find alignment. The answers should not be about word-smithing or branding. The answers should be simple, clear and articulate what the organization is about, what goals it hopes to achieve, and what it needs to do to go about achieving those goals. Achieving this high level alignment will greatly influence the team’s ability to create a competitive advantage around organizational health.

Putting the Questions to Work

Over the past few years, we have worked with the executive team of a large equipment manufacturing company, in an industry going through consolidation. Initially, the CEO brought us on board to help create greater cohesion and alignment at the executive level. During an initial two-day off-site, we went through the six critical questions and some were quite easy for the team to answer. However, when the question of “how will we succeed?” was on the table, it was clear there was a divide between operations and finance.

The finance side of the team was primarily focused on mergers and acquisitions (M&A), while the operations side focused on running successful manufacturing operations. Finance was excellent at spotting and acquiring key high-risk manufacturing companies and making ‘the deal.’ However, difficulty surfaced when operations considered the technical and human capacity needed to bring the newly acquired asset to maximum effectiveness. While both of these areas of focus are important, they could easily be at odds unless there was clarity at all levels of the organization and everyone understood how the pieces fit together.

The executive team wrestled with this issue of “how will we succeed?”, and established their three strategic anchors that would help inform decision-making throughout the company. Their three anchors were:

  • M&A (continue aggressive growth)
  • Technical human capacity (acquire and retain the best people)
  • Risk-taking (proactive in handling change)

If the executive team needs to make a decision and it does not adhere to one or more of these strategies or areas of focus, it is probably not right for the organization. They also helped bridge some competing forces. For example, all new hires now needed to be carefully vetted for their ability to embrace a fast-paced changing environment and to be highly risk-tolerant. To make their strategy actionable, the leadership team clearly and repeatedly communicated the anchors across the organization, including the manufacturing sites – so that the silo between finance and operations would and could be bridged.

Moving Forward

Addressing the six questions and creating organizational clarity has made a significant difference as the company acquired new assets and even decided to merge with another manufacturing company. The latest merger presented an excellent opportunity to re-engage with their organizational clarity as the new blended executive team attempted the challenge of integrating two cultures. Instead of blending the two cultures into a stew, the new leadership team used the six critical questions to prompt open dialogue.

Of course, any merger is a challenge. However, wrestling with the six questions forced the team into conflict and dialogue about what really matters. As a result, the two companies became one. By establishing and communicating the six aspects of organizational clarity early on, the company was able to focus on getting their work done, and avoid politics. At all levels, the company is now aligned around the new ‘one company’ effort.

Seize the Untapped Advantage

The greatest untapped advantage for organizations and teams lies in being able to have the right conversations at the right time. These six critical questions are a great way to ensure your team and company are clear and aligned from the top down.

As an Olympic rower, CrisMarie tells clients, “The difference between a team of champions and a championship team isn’t in the skill set of the athletes, but rather lies in getting everyone to row in the same direction; that is the quickest way to win gold.”