Every Organization Has Unique Problems. Most Leaders Need Support in 3 Areas

An executive asked me the other day, “When a company hires you to fix a problem, what do you look for?”

It varies from organization to organization, but I described a pretty typical set of circumstances (in a simplified way, of course). A company might contact me because of a history of conflict or dissatisfaction among its employees. There could be concern that growth is stalled or a new initiative isn’t progressing as expected. Or, in some lucky cases, an organization is planning for growth and a leader with insight has the instinct that they could do better than they’re doing.

If we agree to work on a project together, I usually interview lots of people. Sometimes I start with the executive team or a senior leadership team (SLT). Other times I begin with everyone in a functional area or a cross-section of people across multiple departments. I ask leading questions about what works and what doesn’t, what gets in the way, what people would rather see. That may sound superficial, but if people trust you, they’ll tell you exactly what’s going on from their perspective. I compile and report out my observations and findings, and that content usually falls into three main buckets, plus a catch-all.

First: Process and Structure

Every organization needs clarity. Is there a specified way that things are supposed to be done? Are there rules of operation, and if so, are they well known and well understood? Are these rules effective? One of my clients and I found that although the business processes were well known and understood at a high conceptual level, all kinds of details and exceptions had increased over time. Divergent approaches to resolving them had led to misunderstandings and finger-pointing. Leaders and subject-matter experts needed to clarify and choose procedural details, promulgate them, and in some cases, train people in them before any other development could go forward. 

In another example with a start-up client, the senior leadership hadn’t been directly involved in supervising processes and structures. Instead, the various departments had all made up their own operating rules and the leadership hadn’t gotten involved until cross-functional conflicts came to a dangerous level. It became so clear that the groups were working at cross-purposes that the SLT finally had to learn about the various issues and weigh in.

Second: Performance and Implementation

Once the structures and requirements are agreed to, there’s a less concrete but equally important area to examine: Are people doing the work they’re supposed to be doing, keeping their commitments, and performing at a high level of quality and productivity? Sometimes you find that there’s a lack of compliance or of supervision and oversight—when people don’t collaborate well or coordinate their activities, error rates are higher and progress is slower. Often poor morale and disaffection deter employees from asking necessary questions, speaking up when they notice a problem, or even seeing projects through to completion. 

Or there can be a lack of skill or competence that forces the skilled, competent people to work around or with other people who can’t really get the job done. Most employees don’t like to complain; plus, if managers only check on what’s happening when they receive complaints, sub-par work can go on for quite a long time before it’s noticed. The unproductive situation may only come to light because customers are leaving or employees are turning over. 

Employee Relationships and Behavior

Clients are often surprised to find that I leave this category to the last. But barring terrible behavior—which should always be addressed immediately—trying to work on relationships and skillful interactions is much more difficult when the processes or performances are broken. These deficiencies foster a kind of leaky-bucket situation: even if you could get individuals to treat each other better in the short term, if the structures keep breaking down, the processes are a deterrent to successful collaboration, or there’s no real leadership, any relationship efforts will be undermined and won’t last.

On the other hand, when there’s continuing bad or even unskillful behavior from a person or a department, that must be dealt with promptly. Sometimes individuals aren’t willing to collaborate or play by the rules, which can ruin things for other people. Uncooperative people can’t be ignored, but this is not necessarily about resolving conflicts per se—it’s more a function of providing crucial feedback and occasional disciplinary action. Leaders must determine whether the individuals are willing to change enough to be able to stay in the organization.

But Wait, There’s More…

One theme runs across all three areas, and always needs to be addressed: communication. Rarely do leaders share enough explanation, direction, or commentary publicly about the most important things. Figuring out what employees need to hear and consistently conveying information about decisions and events is one of leadership’s most important jobs at every level, but it often gets short shrift. So we discuss the how, what, and when of messaging and staying in touch.

The ways I approach clients’ problems are many and varied, depending on which of these buckets is most disrupted as well as the specific attitudes and preferences of the executives who need to see things through. An organization’s appetite for the speed and volume of change is also a factor. And of course, there are many other aspects to be considered: Are the right people assigned to the right jobs? How are power and influence used in both hierarchical and non-hierarchical ways? Are rewards appropriate? Is the business strategy sound? Does the organizational structure support effective processing of work? What’s happening in the marketplace with competitors’ suppliers and customers? My clients and I shine light on these problems and continue to explore them as part of our work together.

Onward and upward—

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