Kathy Klotz-Guest

Posts Tagged ‘organizational leadership’

When Leading Means Following: Improvisation, Workplace Collaboration, and Going Where the Sun Doesn’t Always Shine

In Innovation and Improvisation on April 10, 2011 at 8:01 pm

A Southern ex-boss from my high-tech marketing days (and with whom I have become good friends) used to say, “The sun doesn’t always shine on the same dog’s ass all the time.” His offbeat managerial witticisms made me laugh and they were often right. In improvisation – just as it is in the workplace – sometimes we lead and sometimes we follow. We can’t always be in the spotlight. That’s what it means to work and play in a team-based environment. One of the most important leadership skills an improviser and co-worker can develop is knowing when not to enter a ‘scene,’ or when to let other players (co-workers, etc.) take focus. To be a leader, you sometimes have to follow. Often, the greatest leadership challenge is knowing exactly when to let go. And that takes practice.

The beauty of collaboration in improvisation is a lot like collaborating in the workplace – when we listen and support each other, the outcomes are better. And that means sometimes we are the center of the action with players and co-workers supporting our decisions. Other times, the best thing for a scene or an outcome in the workplace is to let others shine and to support their ideas by making them look great. That calls for big values: “doing right, not being right.” Doing the right thing for the team sometimes means letting go of being right. Platitudes are easy, following them…well, not so much.

When we share the ‘stage,’ at work or at play, we build critical skills of trust that serves the team’s best interest. The only way to engender trust for the times we take focus is by making sure we support others when they take the spotlight. When we let others shine, they are more likely to step up and support us when we lead. If everyone is out for “number one,” why pretend to have a team at all? If I know you’ll get my back, I’m more likely to get yours.  It’s how humans are wired. Trust matters.

In a recent improvisation show with friends, a situation surfaced much as it does at work. Two improvisers had focus and momentum. I was already on stage and I had a quick decision to make. Think about the how this same scenario manifests at work where two co-workers are “creating” something. Of course, we’re there, so we need to jump in to add our ideas, right? We need focus, too!

Not necessarily. It feels natural to want to jump in with our ideas. Still, a great improviser, team player, co-worker, boss, etc., asks herself (himself) the following before barging in:

  • Am I often the “focus?”
  • Am I jumping in just to participate without having a way to add value, or “raise the stakes?”
  • Does the situation have a rhythm of its own that works without me?

If the answer to all these is “yes,” hold back. At this moment, being a leader means letting your own ideas go, and making the right choice for the scene. It’s not easy. The ability to recognize when it is time to follow is the difference between merely good versus great collaboration and leadership.

Go beyond the obvious, and challenge yourself to follow sometimes. There will always be opportunities to lead by taking focus. Remember the sun will always shine – just not always on you.

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Inside-Out Storytelling: Penguins and Elephants

In Uncategorized on August 29, 2010 at 11:08 pm

Recently a lot of marketing pundits have focused on storytelling. All great marketing IS storytelling.  That’s true. While marketing tends to focus mostly on external storytelling in the age of new media for good reasons (hey, I just wrote a post about it 2 weeks ago), not enough focus today has been placed on internal storytelling and on how important that is in organizational and cultural leadership.

Why so executives and marketers spend so much more time influencing outsiders than they do on influencing the “insiders” – the people who are tasked with delivering the best customer experience? Employees are among an organization’s greatest brand champions. If employees aren’t happy, customers won’t be, either.

What are the stories that employees tell? What stories define your culture?

The stories circulating internal to any organization are telling – because they point to what your people say your culture is about.

Recently I caught up with a wonderful colleague I knew from many years ago at a once very prominent high-tech company in Silicon Valley. At one time in the 90s, this company was THE place of innovation, and employees were dedicated and worked hard. It was a company people clamored to work for. Over time, that culture changed and it became insulated – a victim of its own success.  Eventually that company failed – in a very big way. And that culture change coincided with a change in C-level mentality that can be illustrated in one story that a former President and Chief Operating Officer Used to tell.

Elephants Verses Penguins

The stories the C-Suite tells – and those that are frequently repeated down the food chain – reflect organizational health and values. If the folks at the top are telling negative stories, that is indicative of a culture in trouble. This former President and COO told a favorite story about penguins and elephants, and he told it often (my colleague and I remembered it!). Penguins are not nurturing of their sick. When one falls behind or is injured, the other penguins attack it. They cannot be weighed down by the infirm. It’s tribal and it defines pack behavior.  Elephants, by contrast, are large and majestic animals that care for one another. When one of them is sick, the entire herd rallies around and nurtures the sick one until it is better or passes. The entire tribe is affected. They feel a connection that keeps them looking out for one another. “We are the penguins,” the COO liked to say often (smiling and proud at his “toughness”).  That story communicated so many layers of culture, values and how the company felt about competition and people. And it wasn’t lost on employees exactly how underappreciated they were.

Stories Told Reveal Truth

That story repeated over and over by the COO on down through the ranks of employees is an insight into the culture. What kind of culture would you rather be in as an employee? I know I’d rather be in the Pachyderm tribe.  This story illustrates how a culture that was once thriving had changed and not for the better. It is no surprise that the culture eventually collapsed – and so did the company.

This company is by no means alone. Remember Enron, for example? At Enron, according to the Harvard Business Review, stories about “get-rich schemes” were as prominent as stories and jokes about “screwing over customers.” That negativity is toxic and that it was so pervasive is the hallmark of an acidic and dangerous culture.

Change Your Stories, Change Your Culture

If you want to change the culture, you must look at the types of stories being told in your organization – up and down the food chain. Are they positive or negative? Do they tell of progress? Are employees extolled? Or are they considered expendable and under-valued? Are people merely elephants or penguins in your organization? Are your customers valued or do employees make fun of customers far too often (as at Enron and countless other companies).

It matters. If you want to change culture and lead change, you must identify and change the stories people tell. Stories aren’t based on fiction; rather, they are forged by the kinds of VALUES and actions the company and its leaders and employees exhibit over and over again.

Inside-Out Storytelling

Leaders must understand the tribal nature of stories that lead and inspire and they must understand that stories rally or disengage employees.  They are the most powerful internal marketing tools around. So if you want to change your culture, you must start by understanding and changing the stories that define the internal culture as well.  Great storytelling outside the company starts with great storytelling internally.