One Direction

A new year heralds new opportunities, possibilities and fresh starts. Individuals make resolutions and set goals, and organisations set corporate targets, KPIs and milestones. So much promise – sometimes we hope for a miracle; sometimes we simply wish for things or people to change; and other times we pray that the force will be with us. As we fashion new strategies, we seek new perspectives and ask questions of ourselves and ‘experts’.

Working with CEOs, I often get questions like this one “what should I do to jumpstart employee enthusiasm and create a unified direction in my organisation, at the start of a new year?” In my head, I respond with ‘I? Not we? Create? a unified direction. My? organisation’, and I typically say innocuously, ‘Tell me more’. Never mind the narrative that follows and the context of the original question, it often boils down to the real challenge of getting others to run alongside enthusiastically and purposefully with us.

Employee engagement is a key element in organisation performance but not a panacea for all organisational malaise. Unlike engines, our employees can neither be jumpstart-ed nor motivated to be enthusiastic. We can raise awareness of their own greatness and inspire each of them to individually determine to bring his/her best to work in collaboration with others. We harness that awakened energy and steer it towards a common direction. It is a simple yet illusive endeavour for the leader.

Transformation begins with people thinking differently.   We can change a process or a product but we cannot change people. We can only change our own thinking and at best, influence others.

Transformation begins with people thinking differently. We can change a process or a product but we cannot change people. We can only change our own thinking and at best, influence others. People need to want to change, and they only want to change when they see a reason to change. Transformation of an organisation, which is really about culture change, must start with the shifts that happen within human beings – particularly, the leaders of the organisation. Leaders need to see, feel, think, and act in new and different ways in order to derive different outcomes. It starts from inside-out: it starts from within the leaders and radiates out. It is about thinking We and not I–them.

The internal change needs to reach deep into our belief in who we are. When leaders act tough and fail or neglect to recognise and appreciate the strengths and contributions of our employees, we are either chipping away at their own self-beliefs of their individual worth and to the organisation and the impact, if any, they have on the results, or antagonising and alienating them. This is the tough bit – telling our people that they matter and the ways in which their efforts add value to the organisation. It is about connecting the dots, in a personal way, within each and every individual.

Next, we need to hitch them to a star – one clearly defined direction (expressed in a pithy slogan), a purpose that gives meaning to the very existence of their job roles and more importantly, the importance of personal competence and accountability. Beginning from a shift from I to We in leaders’ own beliefs about their roles and significance, we create a palpable sense of we are all in this together across the organisation – the germination of a new collaborative inclusive collective commitment to shape the reality of our business. Story-telling, linking corporate values to everyday actions, open communications, and building trust are some of the essential building blocks. These are skills and techniques that can be learned and polished through practice.

Sounds theoretical and fluffy? Here is an account of a recent transformation exercise with a communications network provider.

The assignment: change the mindset of the field service team and all support units, motivate them to be more proactive and creative. Here’s what I did in 12 workshops that covered the entire field service unit of 200 technicians and chargemen:

  • Challenged their self-belief that they were just bottom-of-the-totem-pole maintenance guys; and told them that they were the ‘heroes’ of XYZ and explained how so. I could see their chests puff up and their eyes brighten up after the initial shock and incredulity. They sat upright and paid close attention to the rest of the workshop;
  • Cross-checked their understanding of their role and the mission, how core values define the brand, giving them new in-group buzz words and a simple 4-word mission statement. Repeat key points over and over;
  • Taught them effective communication techniques to speak up, ask questions, or present propositions, and impressed on them with a simple yoga exercise that they could do anything they put their mind to. More ingroup language developed;
  • Included a day of we are in this together experience, creating a safe interactive environment with open and frank dialogue and brainstorming between leaders and team members. Their enthusiasm overflowed as they discovered, at first, tentatively, and then stoked by positive response from their leaders, how much more they can do and how they could improve and develop because they understood how their ‘boring’ maintenance roles were essential; and
  • Wrapped up with a recap of mission, core values, actionable self-belief, and their roles as ‘heroes’ of the operations and individual significance. The glow on their faces and their excitement and sense of camaraderie knew no bounds as they returned to their own work stations across the country.

Lasting impact: During the recent flood disaster rescue and recovery operations, their bosses were amazed at their dedication and commitment despite the hardships and personal loss. They have never before seen these men more enthusiastic, proactive and involved. Then the positivity snowballed as their bosses decided to proudly share stories and photos of their heroic adventures and resilient resourceful professionalism across the organisation, and also formally recognise all who had contributed and served.

People need to want to change, and they only want to change when they see a reason to change.

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Uncharacteristically, these same hard-nosed leaders are also looking into the personal wellbeing of these heroes, and making plans to mitigate post-event physical and emotional fatigue and other factors.

Enthusiastically. One direction. Together. WE.

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