Thursday, January 15, 2015

Do you want to be great?

I have come to appreciate the cycle of blockbuster best-selling leadership-in-organization books. To be honest about it, they’re good for business. It isn’t too long after one of these best-sellers hits the bookstores that I get an uptick in consultation requests. I used to get calls asking for help in getting organizational staff leaders to develop “habits” for being effective leaders. Then, the calls were about helping organizations and schools become “learning organizations.” 

Then, the calls came from leaders asking for coaching to help their organizations go "from good to great," thanks to Collin's best-selling book, Good to Great: Why some companies make the leap and other don't It seems lately a lot of leaders have decided they want their organizations to be great. 

I’m not too optimistic about how many “merely good” organizations can become great given my experience so far. The short of it is that while leaders and others in the organization become enamored with the idea of “being great,” few seem able to get to the point of committing to actually doing the things that will help them achieve greatness. Achieving greatness has a cost to it, and when it becomes clear what the cost entails, few seem willing to commit.

Here is my challenge to organizations who say they want to become great, whether a congregation, a business, or a school:

Organizations that want to be great need to do the things great organizations do.

The biggest challenge to organizations that want to go from good to great is the necessity to change the culture. No organization can become great without doing those things that great organizations actually do. It is not enough to mimic or imitate what the great organizations do, one must create the culture that provides the inherent values that foster greatness. For example, to become great an organization needs to develop a culture of intentionality about both what it does and how it does it. However, about 80% of this entails what many consider boring and mundane: policies, practices, structures, and processes—those foundational matters that sustain every organization characterized by excellence. How you do things matters, the little things count, you have to sweat the details, spelling counts, and style matters. 

Any culture that tolerates attitudes of “Yeah, whatever,” or “That’s good enough,” will never be great.

Organizations that want to be great need great people on board.

For organizations that want to move from good to great no issue seems to be more difficult to deal with than the matter of attracting, cultivating, and keeping, great people. Congregations especially seem to face difficulty with this issue. To move from good to great a congregation will often need to let go of long-tenured, much-loved staff persons who have served faithfully but who cannot provide the qualities of greatness required to help move the organization to the next level. While it is necessary to make this transition in personnel, rarely does it happen without crisis. It is part of the price to pay to become great. But a different price is paid in keeping people who are not top-drawer: their inability to help move the organization forward becomes a hindrance to those who desire to do so and can. Leaders who cannot make the tough call often find that they loose their top-drawer people because of it, leaving the organization with personnel who do not have the capacity to move the organization to greatness.

Top-drawer people seldom are motivated by how much money they make, but they are not naïve about what they are worth. One high-performing second chair leader, shortly after leaving an organization, was asked, “What would it have taken for them to keep you?” He answered, “$3000.” 

That was the difference in salary between what he was paid and what another mediocre employee was being paid. The organization’s failure to balance the “seniority” of tenure of a poor-performer (who had little capacity to move the organization forward) with rewarding and acknowledging their high-performing top-drawer employee resulted in losing the person they most needed to keep. The top employee moved on to a more challenging and satisfying job (for less money) while the company got stuck with an unmotivated worker who made little contribution during the remaining five years he stayed at the company—needless to say, he had little motivation to improve his performance since the lesson here was that the company was willing to reward mediocrity.

Organizations that want to be great need to do great things.

Finally, great organizations do great things beyond what their mission calls for. They “stay hungry” and maintain a trendsetting and pioneering perspective. They are characterized by boldness, imagination, and a willingness to risks when the timing is right. This means that they do not fear failure and so are not characterized by timidity. When great organizations do “great things” their intent is not to make a splash, but to make a difference.

The tragedy here is that too many leaders and members of organizations prefer guarantees rather than risk. They desire safety rather than adventure. The greatest impasse for leaders who want to move their organizations to greatness is having too many in the organization who want to be taken care of rather than engaging in what it takes to do great things. One hard questions leaders need to ask, then, is, “Do I have the people in place to make our organization great?”    

So, do you want to be great? 

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