Years ago when I was a young consultant, I facilitated a strategic planning and visionary retreat for Mr. Jones and his twenty-person leadership team. This was part of a long-term, large-scale, and enterprise-wide improvement effort for a multi-billion dollar organization. The first day of the retreat, we worked on enhancing the organization’s existing mission and vision statements.
Although, predictably, there were some raised voices and some drama on the first day, I was not fully prepared for what I saw on day two. One of the team members, Harry (the organization’s director of total quality management), had been facilitating the leadership team to do a thorough first cut of a SIPOC analysis for the organization all morning. A SIPOC analysis portrays the organization’s suppliers, inputs, processes, outputs, and customers, and it’s a good tool to use in an improvement effort to help describe the current state of the total enterprise.
As the morning progressed, I could tell Mr. Jones was getting more and more frustrated with Harry and the analysis process. Mr. Jones was under a lot of stress due to deep budget cuts, problems with his staff, extreme pressure from his boss, and changes in stakeholder requirements that affected how his organization did business. His expressive eyebrows were hopping up and down.
Finally, he tersely called a break and asked everyone to leave the room except for me and the other facilitator, Randall. When the door closed, Mr. Jones screamed, “Please!!! Can one of you get me an aspirin!?” We both jumped to attention and ran to the facilitator’s tackle box that we always kept stocked with aspirin and many other tools and props critical for a successful management retreat. We watched Mr. Jones pop the aspirin, chase it with water, and put his head in his hands. I asked, “How can we help you, sir?”
Mr. Jones was very angry. He yelled, “If Harry says SIPOC one more time, I am going to lose it! Do not let him back in front of the room! Do something, because this process is not working for me!” I’ll admit I was rattled. After a quick chat with Randall, he and I decided that Harry would not be in front of the room for the remainder of the retreat, and we decided that completion of the SIPOC analysis would be put on hold. Although it needed to be done, we determined it could be completed later.
During that retreat and following it, I was torn about what was “right”: what I thought was right, what Mr. Jones thought was right, and what Harry thought was right. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to move the enterprise forward, but the formal leader and one of the key change agents clearly valued different things, at least on the surface. After the retreat, I helped this organization improve in a meaningful way, achieve significant results, and make headway on many important fronts. This work included strategic planning, results measurement, process improvement, and also training and development of the people.
As far as the people were concerned, in a leadership meeting following the offsite retreat, I realized I had to take a closer look at the human element and intervene to help lift the workforce to new heights. In this meeting, we were hearing from Berta, the team’s ombudsman. Berta was sharing with Mr. Jones and the leadership team what she had learned from canvassing folks throughout the organization about the ongoing enterprise-wide change and improvement effort. Berta would say, “The people feel scared,” and “The people are worried,” and “The people are confused about the changes we’re facing.”
Suddenly, Mr. Jones, who as you now know was under a lot of stress, pounded his fist on the table and yelled, “Berta! If you say, ‘the people’ one more time, I . . . “ We all froze. The silence was deafening. Berta took a deep breath, sat back in her chair, and did not look scared. Mr. Jones looked sheepish. He realized he was out of line. I was energized to see Berta quietly and firmly stand both her ground and the people’s ground. In the leadership team meetings to follow, Berta still represented the people and made sure their voices were heard throughout the multiyear change and improvement initiative. I became one of her biggest fans.
Mr. Jones, Berta, Harry, and Randall taught me a lot about formal and informal leadership. Through them and many other clients over the past twenty years, I came to realize that improving the workplace requires clarity, commitment, and energy. It involves ongoing teamwork, appreciation for diversity, and the ability to manage stress. Most importantly, over time my clients have helped me understand firsthand that people are the most important factor in every enterprise, no matter how large or how small. And, working to lift the people in our organizations to new heights of satisfaction and performance can help the current situation (including any headaches caused by leadership stressors) to improve over time.