We all have seen the footage dozens of times. The hurricane comes ashore and leaves a path of total devastation in its wake. The next morning the survivors look around in stunned silence at piles of debris that were once homes and communities. They seem dazed and at a loss as to where to start the rebuilding because they have not just lost their homes but their sense of purpose as well. For a while they fall into a story best summarized as, "If life is this uncertain, what's the point?" It takes time and outside assistance, but most people get back on track, and in short order we watch as leaders emerge, communities are rebuilt, and life goes on.
Much of corporate America now is facing the same situation. The economic hurricane hit last year and seems to have passed. Executives and managers across the land now are waking up to "the next morning" and are looking at the devastation that has swept through their companies. Millions of people have lost their jobs, production and productivity have fallen off, and what were once proud executive teams have been humbled as they found their financial and analytical skills no match for the extraordinary leadership challenges they confronted. The question facing American business is simple—how do we get our people re-engaged and rebuild our productivity, innovation, purpose, and pride?
The first issue we need to be clear about is what we are up against. The dilemma we face is our mess was not caused by a natural disaster; that would make things simpler. Instead our disaster was self-inflicted. This means the fundamental challenge managers face is how to rebuild trust in their organizations. People don't trust corporate leaders because they are perceived as the ones who didn't see the disaster coming, and to make up for their lapses, ordered the mass layoffs that devastated their divisions, departments, and teams. Employees will say they understand the necessity for these moves but that is largely because they know that is what management wants to hear.
Underneath the veneer of understanding there is a deep current of resentment running through many organizations. If left unchecked, distrust and resentment soon will fester into cynicism and resignation, both of which are devastating to an organization.
These are extraordinary times, and extraordinary actions are required if we are going to make our way forward. To be as clear as I can, this is no time for typical timid corporate "engagement" programming. Traditional incremental approaches only will make things worse. Instead let me point to three distinct powerful actions that can be taken to get your organization moving again.
1. Craft A New Powerful Leadership Narrative
In my view a real leader only has two fundamental responsibilities in an organization. He is the guardian of the mood and the architect of the future. The main issue we are facing has to do with the mood in most organizations. To be clear, a mood is the pervasive conversation people are living in about their future. The adage we use with all our executive and management clients is, "Mood is everything. It isn't the only thing but it is everything because if you don't get it right nothing else you do is going to matter."
This is a big departure from traditional management theory, and that is exactly what we need and why it is so powerful. Distrust, resentment, resignation, and cynicism are not moods that generate success, and they won't be affected by edicts, memos, analysis, or motivational pabulum. Instead leaders must quickly and effectively learn to "manage the mood" in their organizations. In the short term this means they need to begin by getting people back in touch with the fundamental purpose of the organization, what you stand for, and where the company is going. They need to construct a new more powerful leadership narrative about the future.
A new powerful leadership narrative needs to acknowledge the depth of the moment's issues, point to the ways the company has overcome adversity in the past, focus on charting a new course forward, and declare a new unwavering commitment to a new future. This commitment must then immediately be followed by action—new bold action that clearly demonstrates the company is moving forward, investing in its people, and serious about putting the disaster behind and moving forward.
2. Get Outside Help
Every company has its own version of the adage, "People are our most important asset." It may show up as core value statements that point to respect, honor, and caring about people, or visions that talk about valuing each individual and the company's commitment to its "family" of employees. In none of the statements will you find any fine print that says, "Except when things get tough."
Everyone knows the promise of long-term employment is a relic of the past, yet most were not prepared for the wholesale decimation visited on many companies and how quickly executives were willing to show that the visions, values, and creeds were merely hollow slogans. The net effect is as noted above—trust, the foundation for every organization, was broken and must be re-established. Ignoring the situation, pretending it isn't a crucial issue, or living in a story that, "If we just give it time things will sort themselves out," is a non-starter. That you don't know what to do doesn't mean you don't do anything.
To move forward will require bold steps, and in this case, most likely outside help. That isn't always the case so why now? Because what you are working with is distrust and it is focused on company management. It isn't going to work to have the same HR team that just got through managing massive layoffs turn around and deploy a program designed to rebuild trust. The same managers and executives who missed the signs of the coming storm, or panicked in the face of it and ordered across the boards layoffs, are not going to have instant credibility. Yes, they need to craft a new powerful leadership narrative but it is going to be important to bring in outside help to demonstrate the company is serious about a new future and lend credibility to the effort.
3. It's time for transformation!
If there is one bright spot in all this it is that the current meltdown opens the possibility of finally turning our back on the tired management practices of the past and transforming our organizations. Most of what we call "contemporary management practices" were developed during World War II when the economy was built on manufacturing and agriculture. In those days what we managed were peoples' activities, as that is what generated value.
Since then the nature of work and the workforce itself have changed dramatically. Today the value-generators in any organization are not the production workers but the tacit or knowledge workers. These are people who have a body of competence and know how to work together to solve problems, manage projects, and generate customer satisfaction, innovation, and value. We aren't interested in their activities. What matters are the results they generate.
What we largely have done since WWII is add technology to the same old practices so we can now do things that are either irrelevant, or annoying to contemporary workers, but we can do them really fast. In the aftermath of our economic hurricane many organizations now are faced with the dilemma of needing to get the same amount of work done but with far fewer resources.
This is the perfect moment to transform our organizations by introducing the new practices of Commitment Based Management. The basic principles of it are simple. Instead of seeing work as a set of activities that need to be supervised, see it as a set of nested commitments. Whenever someone says to someone else they will produce a specific result by a specific point in time they have made a commitment. If you consider that every day thousands and thousands of these commitments are made and completed as the fundamental element of what we now call work, then you can see that power derives from learning the practices of effectively and consistently making, fulfilling, managing, and tracking this network of commitments—not the inventory of activities.
Thinking strategically about the company and your projects, consistently generating innovations, and doing what you say you are going to do when you say you'll do it, do not happen by handing down orders, building consensus, coming up with diagrams of processes, or reorganizing. Instead they require the construction of a new culture in which people live the underlying values of accountability, trust and commitment, embody new effective leadership and management skills, and hold a deep commitment to a new way of working. If there was ever a time when there was an opening to build new organizational cultures this is it. Let's not miss our opportunity by attempting to reassemble the same old organizational and management structures. This is a time to be bold, transform our organizations, and build new futures.
Chris Majer is the CEO of the Human Potential Project. His firm specializes in producing dramatic performance improvements in organizations around the world. He and his team have spent 20 years developing new practices for leadership and management. He is the author of "The Power to Transform."